Wednesday, August 18, 2010

THE FOURTH KIND: Take us to your Benzos!

"I'm having a hard time understanding what happened here!" 
--The Sheriff (Will Patton)

One of the common drawbacks of reaching adulthood is the loss of magic in one's perceptions; the child's wide aperture for mysteries shrinks as the world is 'figured out.' Elements of life that used to baffle and intrigue are made plain, robbed of their dark aura by cold explanations in the light of middle school health class. The mysteries and horrors that can fill a child with dread and delight are to jaded adults merely nostalgia; if we get scared in these days of global deadening it's probably a sign we need to up our meds.

You may remember being a kid making rec room haunted houses at Halloween, where you blindfolded a willing, cocktail-addled adult and bid them dip their hand in a bowl of warm spaghetti. "This is brains!" you'd say. "Yuck!" they'd say, playing along. The adult may know it's not brains, but if they allow themselves to believe it is even if only to validate the kids' imagination, the result may be fun. So why not? It's for the kids, so it doesn't make the adult seem naive.  

Movies like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, INCIDENT AT LOCH NESS, and CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, THE FOURTH KIND play off this 'brains in a bowl' idea, encouraging us to play along with the idea that what we're seeing is real. If burdened with scary music cues, special effects, and known actors, we're limited by how 'scared' we can really get. But a documentary might be true, hence the 'found' is frightening. As rational adults we may 'know' it's not really true, but if it feels true enough to fool us, to act as that blindfold in a dark room, maybe we can relax our tired grip on blase adult certainty enough we get the feeling we might get from a scary campfire tale heard in real woods at night. Tell us it's true and we may not 100% believe you, but it's way scarier than 100% knowing it's not, that's why all the best stories are myths, and urban legends have power because we may have smug skeptics decrying their factuality but they feel so true, those skeptics can seem like they're just whistling in the dark if we give them the benefit of the doubt.

So why can't we access that primal fear on command? If we can feel spooked by our own shadows the way we were as kids when walking to the bushes to pee after a night of campfire ghost stories when everyone else has gone to sleep, then it's worth meeting a found footage horror movie halfway. If we can't, I for one blame science! Scientists discover a giant ghost frog that breathes fire in some remote volcanic island, but within minutes they've given the thing a name--horribilis pikelianis -- so now it's just another frog, big deal. Science is all about making sure, in short, that no one gets to have any mystery in their lives. I mean, is it fun if that glowing weird ball in the sky is dryly explained away as "marsh gas" or "the close proximity in rotation of the planet Neptune"? Zzzzzz. But until then, even an adult skeptic can awake their gullible inner child, and if they can't or don't want to, well, who wants to have dry pompous unimaginative bores like that around? 

In the end it makes no real difference if I truly believe in aliens or not, except to me. But there are some who are terrified of even getting that little bit ambiguous. If an uptight scientist is blindfolded by the kids, at the aformentioned cocktail party, and subjected to the tactile 'cold spaghetti/brain' experience, he might get very irate and lecture the children on the way brains actually feel, and that they need to do more research for brains are actually very dense. Ugh... Why can't they let it go and just go "ooooh yuck!" so the children can laugh and play? Are they.... doing things... with brains... in their secret labs? Or are they just terrified that once they relax their conservative naysayer mindset, their whole damned self is going up in flames?

By nearly every "uptight scientist" standard, THE FOURTH KIND (2008) is a terrible film. But yet, one must admire it because it's gutsy enough to make nearly every mistake in the book. It's just like that bowl of cold noodles that's supposed to be brains. Maybe the kids got it wrong, and forgot to actually cook the noodles first, so in there all dry. You just have to laugh and play along if that happens, not yell at the kids or ground them for inaccurate brian representation. And so you will maybe laugh and play along when you first see Milla Jovovich walking towards the camera to explain that what you are about to see is true... based on real events...too shocking to reveal til now! She'll be playing a crazy shrink hypnotizing people in Nome Alaska to recount their being invaded orificially by owl-eyed 'things.' 

They're victims of.... alien abduction.

At first the abductees are merely scared. Then, to up the ante, they start acting like they're possessed by the space edition of the demon from THE EXORCIST. All the writhing and talking in ancient Sumerian and levitating and opening mouths wide enough to accommodate even the most acromegalous of dentists.

A bizarre mishmash of fake real footage, real fake footage, allegedly real footage, totally fake footage and an assortment of spoken audio from sessions that many people think is faked, THE FOURTH KIND gamely presumes it has the kind of savvy to hide the fact that a solid 80% of this film consists of people being lying in bed or on couches, coming in and out of hypnosis and acting super scared. Frankly, I don't mind that, it's cute, or could be if anyone involved with the production researched an actual hypnotist, or been to Alaska or read up on actual alien abduction cases. Nome is played I think by Vancouver and one of the Eastern bloc countries currently cheap to film in. Names have been changed to protect the innocent... and then changed yet again to confuse the guilty.

But hey, Milla has a really cozy yet gigantic home/office, her own single engine plane instead of a car, even a roaring fake fire, which is good since nearly the whole movie occurs in her den where she does her work. And PS - Nome must be really short of shrinks, because her character is way too familiar with her patients to maintain the professional objectivity needed for real hypnotism, and worse, she's unable to make a simple diagnosis of anxiety and prescribe meds, i.e. Xanax, even as her patients roll on the floor screaming in overwhelming horror and panic for minutes at a crack. Instead she accepts help from that old pro nostril-flarer Elias Koteas... and the work continues. Koteas has apparently never heard of benzos either. They really should have studied before going into business; pharmacology has wrought wonders in the last century alone!

Actually, let's fixate on this issue because indulgent bemusement or no, watching three doctors do nothing but stand around and watch a guy basically trying to tear his face off in hypnotized terror is not reassuring. I kept shouting at the screen, "You're supposed to be a shrink, give him a Xanax! Or if you're just a therapist, give him a recommendation for a shrink who will give him a goddamned Xanax." God forbid someone came to her with real problems like full-blown psychosis. She'd probably tell them to go just hang on for a few years while she fumbles with the tape recorder and tries to learn her job.

Since the plot is relayed to us via tape recordings of the sessions there are lots of shots of close-ups of cassette players and spinning tape wheels -- and there's really no way to tell whose voice is whom's from the confusing mishmash of voices on tape. Is this a real patient's voice we're hearing or the dead husband's? If the latter, is it the 'real' dead husband or the 'fake' one, i.e. the actor? Is this her own husband, or a patient? And again, is it the 'real' one or the one acted for the purpose of this film? Is this a hypnotically recovered memory of a patient listening to a tape recorder? Is this tape recorder remembered by Milla in the over-reaching taped interview with the director? Or is it live? Erich, are you under hypnosis, even now? Is this all just on some tape... somewhere?

One guy who would love this film? Jean-Luc Godard! It's got accidental Brecht written all over it. I'm 45% sure that with the addition of French subtitles to add yet another layer of structural hyper-reflexivity, THE FOURTH KIND would become as post-modern as any of Godard's 80s minimalist comedies with half the running time devoted to watching reels of tape spinning in their plastic casings. Just substitute petit bourgeois capitalism for aliens and it writes itself!

But other than its problems with criminal pharmacological neglect, I take no umbrage with the film's gross incompetence. There's good music (creepy!) set design (cozy!), and Milla's eyes (forget not her breakout role was as an alien in THE FIFTH ELEMENT!). The lame execution adds to the chilling faux-cumentary effect, especially as this kind of subject matter needs ersatz trimmings--the faker the better--for don't we deal with traumatic truths much easier when presented in laughably inept form? If you were to reach your hand into a bowl of real brains, wouldn't that somehow defeat the purpose, drain the fun? By that definition, FOURTH KIND is the truest and best bad fake real film about the real problem of alien abduction since PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE! (my praising herewith).

Science should take note of this approach, because if you try to fight Medusa through a mirror, you wont know where she is and one day you'll accidentally see her straight on and die instantly. You think by blocking the horizon line of your life with a lot of props and nonsense you can obstruct your view of her-- and when someone mentions Medusa might be real you arrest them or kick them out of your lab because you're afraid if you believe in her she will come. The alien agenda is like that, but worse-- it not only wipes away those blocks so you see your death looming past the credits, you also see the alien agenda after your death, how they're waiting even farther past for your newly separated soul to rise up towards the light so they can catch in their soul harvesting nets!

So yes, I like THE FOURTH KIND. I never want to have to see it again, but I like it for its misguided bravado and humorless self-importance, like the way you want the kid who leads you blindfolded through the haunted house to the bowl of brains to not crack up or apologize but to solemnly warn of what's to come and try his damnedest to be scary. If we're going to get all into aliens, the filmmakers seemed to reason, let everyone overact and have a good time and we can confound the whole idea of truth and get away with saying whatever we want; we can even slip in the real truth and no one will panic because audiences will think its fiction disguised as truth and only the brave and bold (or just paranoid) will suspect it's not. And with no way to prove it, there's no genuine panic.

Send in the clown cover memories
Big plusses: Milla gets to make grave diagnoses.... Resident Evil's Alice has filled her with holy power so she can say, "Something is going on, there's something strange going on in Nome" and have it ring with menace, or "conversion phenomena is something not a lot of people understand," implying she does! She understands less as time goes on, but is still miles ahead of the spooked and reactionary sheriff... or is she? A tense stand-off and a violent knife murder seemed shuffled in to keep you from nodding off. Milla's haunted eyes are beautifully lit, so we can contemplate her hybrid status as we go along, and realize yes, Virginia, aliens are among us, and some of them are very, very adorable.

Big minuses: a few under-rehearsed moments of 'family angst' such as the now cliche'd dinner table of single mom with two kids--a sweet young girl and bratty older boy who wants his daddy back-- "How'd dad die, mom?" -- you can practically set your watch to the big scene of Milla freaking to the heavens: "They took my baby!!!" Elias Koteas seems like he didn't know what kind of film this was before he signed on and is acting in a kind of counterpoint to the hysteria around him, conveniently vanishing every time a corroborating witness appears to make Milla seem less nuts. I never could learn to like Mr. Koteas who's nostril breathing and Kevin Kline-ish pomp creates too much hairy proximity. I won't deny he's a fine actor - but sometimes fine doesn't cut it, sometimes only a bad performance can be truly great. When in Nome....

Whether or not you believe this story, believe one thing: dogmatic crank skeptics are your enemy! The noodles really are brains! And if you have any spare benzos, please send them to the stressed out abductees of Nome, Alaska, or better yet, to me. Everyone, everywhere, keep watching! Keep watching! Keep watching the pharmacist! 


  1. Wasn't the whole point of the reenactment bullshit to make the 'real' footage more believable? This isn't a bad technique, I guess.

    I thought this was pretty good, if you didn't think about it too the suspicious lack of narcotics, as we all know shrinks love giving them out...I mean, I don't know whether I should be ashamed or not that I jumped a couple times.

  2. I didnt love this movie, but I have to admit it did have its moments. Was it just me or was the movie trying to say that these guys might be contacting something close to the idea of god? That whole thing was ultra freaky, but it plays with the same themes that KNOWING played around with, that what many subscribe a biblical meaning to, is actually alien in origin.

    I liked what you said about loosing that sense of childlike wonderment. It seems to be that when I watch movies, Im simply trying to recapture that feeling all the time.

  3. Great essay; I'm glad this is (sort of) next on my Netflix list.
    Have you seen Eduardo Sánchez's Altered (2006)? It sounds like it should be on a double-feature with The Fourth Kind. Not only because of Sánchez's connection with Blair Witch, but because it's about some post-post-adolescents who get revenge on the aliens who probed them. It's like an extra-gory mash-up of The X-Files and an old Outer Limits episode, but thankfully without any "figures of responsibility and reason" (like a Fox Mulder or other boring cop/doctor stand-in). The movie jumps the rails, but it's so intense (and gory), I didn't care.
    Keep up the great work!

  4. I'm struck by how in the late 19th century, eyewitnesses were seeing airships. In the 1950s, it was all flying saucers, most likely from Mars or Venus. UFOs suddenly got lights and became more angelic in the 1970s while in the '90s, the sinister edge of alien abduction took root.

    So, either the aliens are altering their approach or we're altering our own myths to suit the times. However, I agree with your thesis that even if 99.9% of the accounts are false, that leaves 0.1% of truth which makes our universe very interesting.


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