Nobody, I hope, thought Close Encounters of the Third Kind was about real events. That movie was made to be realistic in a Hollywood sort of way but it was clearly a fable, a fabulous story. The Fourth Kind has other intentions. It resolutely, in-your-face, implies that it’s based on true events, close encounters of the fourth kind. It opens with the lead actress Milla Jovovich announcing that she plays a real psychiatrist, one who really lived in Nome, Alaska and experienced all the events around the year 2000. It’s almost as if the movie is a documentary.
That might have been credible if the actress made this announcement while at a press conference or sitting on the set of the movie, but no, she makes the statement while marching down a deeply forested road – coming out of the fog like some apparation from Twin Peaks.
This sets the tone of the movie. It claims to tell a story based on real events. It presents what appear to be clips of the real people in the story, often with a split-screen technique used in some mockumentaries showing ‘reality’ on the left and ‘dramatization’ on the right. Yet (cue dire music and foreboding green tinted visuals) much of the time it deliberately amps the dramatization beyond melodrama.
What is this movie? Reality dramatized or hyperventilated drama? Is this science fiction or other-worldly fact?
I think quite a few people will be troubled during the movie with questions like these. For some the story will frequently break their suspension of disbelief – they won’t buy it. Not at first, not later – never. Others might have their reservations but accept the story as a stylized way of framing fiction like it was fact. A few others, a very few I hope but fear otherwise, will think it’s a dramatization of reality.
What reality? That there are visitors from outer space who have been around since early history (Sumerian period probably, as they speak Sumerian), and are apparently conducting experiments with human beings: Probing minds, messing with bodies, testing emotions, and on occasion abducting people. For the purposes of the movie this is localized in Nome, but supposedly has been going on world-wide for oh, three thousand years or so. The aliens must be very slow learners.
We never see the aliens, so this is not a monster movie. The movie often focuses on an ‘owl’ that apparently watches the characters/victims in the story. It could be one of the aliens and not some kind of robotic, but eventually it doesn’t seem to matter. What matters is that we see the effects of the alien activity – levitation, snapping necks, people going crazy – effects right out of the Exorcist, minus the religion. Apparently it’s important there is no religion involved, perhaps because that would break the movie’s pretention to create an atmosphere of pseudo-rationalist inquiry. The movie works at trying to be seriously objective and scientific about things, making it obvious the movie’s writer/director Olatunde Osunsamni clearly believes they aren’t up to the job.
I mentioned the main character, Abbey Tyler, is a psychiatrist. Most of the movie is a re-creation of her sessions with clients/victims, or psychiatric interviews with her as she turns into one of the victims. In these sessions characters are constantly questioning whether what is happening is real or imaginary. Rational understanding is in mortal combat with the incredible, as it might be for many in the audience.
To build the sense of truthiness for ‘science’ and ‘reality’ there’s almost always a camera running; it’s kind of a theme. There is constant documentation, which doesn’t prove anything conclusively because the crucial images are always conveniently blurry, distorted, or fuzzed by some kind of interference. Ditto for the recorded voices, especially of the aliens, whose coarse and menacing Sumerian is broken and inscrutable. Even the Sumerian expert, played as an obliging prop by Awolowa Odusami can barely understand it. So much for experts.
The local authorities, especially the sheriff played by Will Patton, are even worse. Typecast as the obtuse opposition, their every scene escalates hostility to the ‘evidence.’ Supposedly the FBI conducted hundreds of investigations in the Nome area; where are the Feds in the movie? Why isn’t this framed as an FBI story, much like X-Files? Perhaps because the movie claims the story is true, it can’t portray FBI involvement. Whatever. Authority figures in this movie are clueless, or choose to be so.
The state of cluelessness dominates all the characters in The Fourth Kind. As if anywhere – even Nome, Alaska – in this age of the Internet could have a full-blown alien abduction conspiracy without attracting an army of amateur investigators.
Do you get the sense I’m one of those people who can’t buy the story? With some movies you can forget the crappy premise and go with the flow, but not this one, at least not for me. The thing is; it’s not a documentary. It’s a dramatization and as such it’s heavy-handed and serious to the point of being leaden. The scripting, cinematography, background music and pacing are often so lugubrious as to detract from the flow of the story – in short, the professional but clumsy craft of the movie gets in the way.
It’s not that The Fourth Kind is an unwatchable movie. It has its moments, but trying to combine believable documentary style with over-dramatization doesn’t work very well. On top of which, the whole thing is a fraud (see Science Spoilers below).
Outside the movie theater, in the real world, the Hollywood corporation that produced The Fourth Kind set up a website not so much to promote the movie but to showcase what were supposed to be the real stories that prompted it. It was all fake, a hoax. There is no record in Alaska of a psychiatrist Dr. Abigail Tyler. The supposedly real clips of psychiatric sessions were faked. The people of Nome complained that they demeaned the plight of those who actually did go missing from that city. (Most of whom were Native Americans – although none of the characters in the movie are Native American.) To quote from the IMDb entry on The Fourth Kind:
On September 1, 2009, an investigation by the Anchorage Daily News examined the validity of the film’s premise, and its relation to actual disappearances that have occurred in and around the town of Nome. The investigation found no specific events to back up the claims in the film and also revealed that unsolved deaths in Nome are no more frequent than any other small Alaskan town. The consensus is that the high rate of alcoholism combined with the harsh landscape surrounding Nome accounts for a majority of disappearances (just as in other remote areas).
On November 12, 2009 Universal Pictures agreed to a $20,000 settlement with the Alaska Press Club “to settle complaints about fake news archives used to promote the movie.” Universal acknowledged that they created fake online news articles and obituaries to make it appear that the movie had a basis in real events.
[Source: IMDb Faq]
Most people who learn about this are likely to think the movie is an outstanding example of pure narrative dishonesty, a lot like modern politics. Others may think it’s clever storytelling and marketing. Others may still think the whole thing is true. Such is the spectrum of public opinion.
As science, well there is precious little real science in The Fourth Kind. It’s like alien abduction is a taboo subject that can’t be approached with anything other than defensive hostility or zombie-like acceptance. It’s a big giveaway that the movie presents only arguments in favor of alien visitation and leaves out the scientific counter arguments. It’s not really interested in the truth of alien visitation and abduction; it’s interested in a money-making narrative.