If E.T. Comes Calling

So what happens if the aliens land? Here, on Earth.

I'm not talking about detecting a radio signal or a laser flash from hundreds of light-years away. I'm speaking of visitors who actually set their boots on the ground. What do we do?

It may surprise you to learn that there's precious little preparation for such an eventuality.

Now, if you're among the many tens of millions of Americans who think aliens are already afoot in the land, you're confident you know humanity's reaction. Scoffing denial.

But face it: Few scientists are convinced by the evidence offered for visitation. So let's consider the question assuming that the extraterrestrials aren't here.

First, there's the popular take. Thanks to a half-century of movies featuring aliens who've steered themselves to our watery world, the public reckons that a landing will play out in only one of two ways: (1) The whole incident, which is usually high on weirdness and low on damage to humans, will be covered up by a paranoid government (think UFOs), or (2) the aliens haven't come in peace and will proceed to either ravage the planet or remodel it to suit themselves (think Independence Day).

But limiting ourselves to this pair of scenarios is cramping our style. So here's another idea: In a movie being screened at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Danish director Michael Madsen lays out a more cerebral storyline, and one that might be more realistic. In The Visit, a fictional piece presented as documentary, real scientists, politicians, military types, and United Nations officials sit behind their stunningly neat desks and mull over what to do about a house guest who's arrived from the stars.

Of course, before the mulling begins, an off-screen voice offers a solemn disclaimer: "As far as we know, no alien has ever landed on Earth." This will undoubtedly cause audiences in New Mexico to twist in their seats, but maybe Madsen wants to forestall the misunderstandings that followed Orson Welles' 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast: fiction mistaken for fact.

After that, the film showcases a string of experts ruminating on the difficulties posed by a non-human species landed in the front yard. They mostly address two concerns: How do we handle the public, and what kind of conversation can we have with our guests?

The former, of course, is a well-known hot-button issue. In fact, and despite the implications of the film, neither world governments nor the United Nations are primed to deal with beings who don't have DNA. Indeed, they've shown essentially no interest in this issue; for example, the UN has neither adopted nor deliberated protocols to deal with a SETI signal, let alone considered their actions in case of a physical visit. The UN has plenty of fish to fry, but they're not alien fish.

In The Visit they suddenly are interested. There's repeated high-level talk of quarantining the evidence and telling the public as little as possible (conspiracy fans shake their heads knowingly), all in the interests of security and the equanimity of the populace. Unsurprisingly, this is a view more congruent with continental attitudes than American: In Europe the experts, including governments, are presumed to know best.

But in fact, and refreshingly, security's not much of an issue. Neither public panic nor a military threat occur. Despite abundant footage of tanks urgently shambling through the forests, there's no face-off with the extraterrestrials.

You probably have your own views on whether visitors would be benign, but in any case the lack of conflict is certainly for the best. If the UN (or, for that matter, the Pentagon) doesn't have a manual for dealing with extraterrestrial invasion sitting on the shelf, it's not only because these organizations figure the chance of that happening is remote. It's also because there's not much they could do. If aliens have the technology to visit Earth, they're at least centuries beyond us technologically. Picture the asymmetry of the Christian crusaders facing a contemporary military. If E.T. is here to cause trouble, about the best you could do is negotiate.

The real essence of the encounter pictured in The Visit is not in such mundane matters as whether or not the visitor is going to raze our infrastructure but the sociological implications. "How does your mind work?" the experts ask. "Do you have imagination? A concept of good and evil?"

What we really want to know is how much they are like us. Sure, maybe it would be nice to understand their rocket technology or ask if they can tell us what really happens at the center of a black hole, but the essential value of extraterrestrial contact would be to calibrate ourselves.

This is a more nuanced line of inquiry. The Visit, alone among the many films dealing with putative alien encounters, takes it on.

The Visit is ascetic, spare, and slow-moving -- kind of like space itself. It makes Last Year at Marienbad look like an action film. But the purpose of the movie is not simply to tickle your reptilian brain but to prompt you to muse on what you'd want to know about a being from another world with its own environment and its own evolutionary history. In this sense The Visit dares to go where no sci-fi film has gone before.