06 November, 2009

The Fourth Kind

I want to say that The Fourth Kind is not perfect, but I found it to be both effective, and terrifying. And it is, without a doubt, essential viewing for alien abduction enthusiasts. The story focuses on psychologist Dr. Abbey Tyler's personal experiences with the paranormal in her home town of remote Nome, Alaska, where several individuals had allegedly been abducted in their sleep on multiple occasions. The film opens with a frank scene featuring Milla Jovovich, who steps out of her character (she plays Dr. Tyler) and explains the role of the film, as a dramatization of actual events (supported by some supposed actual footage), the point of which is to present the facts of this strange case - allowing you, the viewer, to come to your own conclusions as to what, ultimately, to believe.

And this is the unique approach of this film. Instead of going documentary style and presenting almost exclusively archival footage, or, on the other extreme, going complete dramatization as if to say, 'here is, essentially, what happened', this film mixes the two - going so far as to juxtapose them simultaneously at times. There are scenes where the screen is split, with archival footage being shown on one half, and the corresponding dramatization on the other. In my estimation, the goal of this approach is to drive home the point that the dramatizations are faithful reproductions of the archival footage (perhaps to build firmer trust in the dramatizations), and to constantly reinforce the audience's acknowledgement that these events are true.

We'll ignore whether or not the archival footage is truly real, or also staged, as - though certainly up for debate - the viewing of the movie depends on the assumption that that footage is indeed real. Skepticism on that subject is certainly warranted when discussing whether or not the movie is "real", but allowing that skepticism to taint your suspension of disbelief during viewing is bound to decrease the effect, and your enjoyment, of the film.

Personally, I found the constant bashing over the audience's head of "this is real, this is real" to be highly suspect, actually decreasing my belief in the veracity of the film's claims. One would think that, even despite the skepticism surrounding the issue, if it was true, they wouldn't have to try quite so hard to convince you. Even so, I thought it was a unique approach, and it was interesting to compare the depictions - archival versus dramatized.

A few words about the plot. Spoilers to follow: Through patient interviews, Dr. Tyler comes to the realization that something strange is going on in Nome, and that it may be related to her husband's recent death - he was apparently murdered in his sleep. Multiple patients report similar symptoms involving difficulty sleeping, and recollections of a white owl watching them from a window - and sometimes inside the room - while in bed. Dr. Tyler decides to try hypnotizing one of the patients to uncover the truth about these strange incidents, and during hypnosis, the patient comes to realize that what he saw was not an owl - and he subsequently goes into a fit of extreme terror. The realization of what he's been experiencing causes him to take drastic (and irreversible) measures in order to prevent it from happening again - and to the rest of his family.

Tension mounts as the good doctor discovers that she's been having the same experiences - and suspects that her husband had them also before he died - and the local sheriff begins to suspect her of foul play, considering the hysterical results of her patients' therapy - which brings up the conflict of wanting to put a face to one's fears at the potential risk of not being able to face up to that terrifying truth. Believe me, the idea of a thing being so terrifying that a person would rather die than live with the knowledge of it is indeed profoundly disturbing.

The movie tries to take a more or less "realistic" approach to the story - which fits in line with its attempt to convince the audience that it's all true. As a result, even with the dramatizations, which do take some liberties, for effect - although some of the archival footage itself is downright terrifying - we don't get to see (clearly) any actual aliens, nor do we get an exciting scene aboard a spacecraft. In other words, the movie doesn't take us with the abductees, but only shows the results of their experiences from our, Earthly, perspective.

This is disappointing, to be sure, but it would be wrong to think that this film doesn't offer any goods. I was kind of perturbed by the way that they blurred the line between hypnosis and actual abduction. Hypnosis is supposed to just be a memory of the abduction, but here, it's almost portrayed as a repeat occurrence of the abduction. Which is odd because that would almost seem to support the theory that alien abduction is all in the head - which is contrary to the film's obvious purpose of putting forth the alien theory of these occurrences.

Anyway, since from a realistic perspective, it's easier to video-tape hypnosis sessions than actual abductions, it works in the context of the film, but I did find it strange that they used hypnosis almost as a call for the aliens to do their thing. The ole, "I have to talk with them, put me under!" trick. Anyway, we do get to see some terrifying stuff, including plenty of screaming, vague hints of painful medical experiments (again, more from the "see the effects, imagine the causes" angle), some levitation (though not as impressive as seeing a guy lifted up through a beam of light into a spacecraft), and we even get to hear the alien(s) voice, as it relays some very disturbing messages (initially in ancient Sumerian).

Altogether, what this adds up to is a very good movie, which nevertheless leaves me feeling a bit unfulfilled, as in, wanting more. All the more reason to pair it up with other alien fare, for an even better entertainment experience. There are a lot of films about extraterrestrial life - the search, contact, etc. - but few, that I am aware of, that deal directly with this specific style of alien abduction phenomenon. I recommend copious viewings of classic episodes of The X-Files - especially (but certainly not exclusively) Duane Barry, of which I was reminded multiple times while watching The Fourth Kind. But, ultimately, for the double feature, I would pair it up with no less than the ultimate title in alien abduction terror - Fire in the Sky.

(Recommendations for other alien abduction movies that I may not have seen are greatly appreciated. ;)

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