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It’s fair to say The Fourth Kind is not well reviewed. Rotten Tomatoes’ critics’ consensus calls it “hokey,” “clunky,” and somehow “makes its close encounters seem eerily mundane.” I don’t disagree with any of those thoughts, per say.
It is a little hokey. It can be really clunky. However, it’s precisely that eerie mundane effect that makes this film different. After all, isn’t a great creepy story at its best when even the most boring things feel a little off, a little strange, or a little foreign to us? This quiet and contorted film about alien abduction can do that.
New Age Distance
I’ve always found New Age things – Tarot, crystal healing, chakras, even Yoga – to be a bit distancing. They thrive on placing the self far away from others: centering you in a world that is between yourself and the Earth. No one else matters in those moments of connection. As my favorite Yoga teacher likes to say, “it’s just you and your mat.”
It’s that same New Age spirit that The Fourth Kind utilizes to put you off. If in your own practice, space for yourself is comforting, in a horror story that same space is disconcerting. Isolating. Dangerous. Think about The Shining: while Jack feeds off his connection with The Overlook Hotel, his wife and son are distanced by it; directly threatened, even.
But this story isn’t about a haunted house. Even a haunted place. While the residents of Nome, Alaska do seem to be disappearing, it’s not their town that’s haunted – it’s the residents themselves.
The Fourth Kind is at its heart, a science fiction film about aliens. Like Signs, its basic plot concerns visitors who are not of this Earth. What’s most interesting, however, is not so much the actual aliens, abductions, or disappearances, but the psychological effects of group hysteria on Dr. Abigail Tyler’s entire psychological practice.
Group think is scary. That a whole group of people could be experiencing the same thoughts, visions, or dreams is bizarre enough to feel supernatural, but in reality, a psychological phenomenon that can and does occur in real life. Possibility makes that supernatural quality frightening and even horrific.
A vision of an owl is being reported in Dr. Tyler’s office by multiple patients, the number and similarity of the story growing each day. It’s disturbing to her, but not a psychological impossibility. This is mass hysteria, yes? Then she begins to experience the visions and dreams, herself.
In small groups (or larger, still), aren’t we apt to believe what others would like us to believe? Our brains crave interaction. In an unexplainable and potentially unnerving situation, the group may strive toward the same experiences; for comfort, for explanation. What happens when the psychologist, the person meant to suss things out and put you straight, begins to participate in that group think, too?
A Little Brechtian Distance Never Hurt Anybody (or did it?)
For all its flaws, I see The Fourth Kind as an alien abduction story with just the right amount of distance. A creepy story with just a little too much dead air for comfort.
As mentioned, the New Age philosophy keeps the idea of self-actualization and distance at the forefront. In addition is a structural condition – what those Rotten Tomatoes critics probably found “clunky” – that you might even go so far as to call Brechtian.
As a hybrid found footage/faux documentary/dramatization, The Fourth Kind is not a natural narrative. It’s not the way you’d tell a story from a book – no clear beginning, middle, or end – and without any true catharsis. Its mash-up of sub genres and filming styles is both off-putting and distancing. Like the classic Brecht play, it does things that seemingly prevent the audience from connecting with its characters. Whether it does so purposefully or not isn’t of interest to me – the effect it creates is.
Based on “True Events”
The typical jump scares the found footage subgenre relies upon are present here, and truly in my opinion, don’t hold a lot of weight (but there are a couple that’ll get you if you watch in the dark – always watch in the dark). What does, though, is the lonely and isolating tone that’s achieved in mixing these styles, and the notion that everything is based on real events.
In flashing between found footage, documentary interviews, and dramatization, the viewer is simultaneously immersed in a story and completely aware of how it is being told. The narrator is present, the tapes are rolled out as evidence, and even actual Milla Jovovich announces (really bizarrely) at the start of the film that she is “actress Milla Jovovich playing Dr. Abigail Tyler.”
This makes the “real” Dr. Tyler on the interview tapes terribly unsettling. We see Jovovich play her throughout the film as a healthy woman. The character’s damaged appearance in the “real” footage is by comparison shocking. The transformation is explained a bit in dialogue, but we spend much of the film waiting to be shown how it occurred. What would have suddenly confined this woman to wheelchair, left her gaunt, wide-eyed, and her voice cracked all over?
It many ways, it’s that old “based on true events” gimmick at work – (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, The Exoricst etc.) Sometimes it’s hokey, and other times, it seems to take hold. But it’s also something else in The Fourth Kind: an element of surface level, television special storytelling, that really makes the strangeness effective. It’s spooky and hollow, and it will make you unsure about what’s coming next.
The Fun Stuff
Is Elias Koteas in every horror film these days, or is that just me? Every single one since The Prophecy, right?
Owls are fucking creepy. Their necks spin around too far. They’ve got big, big eyes. Just my opinion.
I’m noticing my own interest in stories concerning women and their children. A main part of my concern in this film is for Dr. Tyler’s children, and how the visions and abductions concern her family element directly. Maybe this is just my age and my own personal life creeping into my choices and preferences. But pregnancy, birth, parenthood, losing your children – these are all grounds for real, honest horror, no?
If You Like It, Watch:
Twin Peaks – So, there’s the owl, of course. But also the setting: upper Washington is not dissimilar from the isolated Nome setting. It makes mischief and mayhem feel all the more possible and likely to fall under the radar.
Fire in the Sky – This dramatic reenactment of an “actual” abduction experience has a serious cult following. It consistently makes “scariest films I’ve ever seen” lists. Judge for yourself.