Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The Fourth Kind

I saw this movie a while ago because Milla Jovovich is hot in any role. UFO abduction films usually annoy me, and this one was no exception, but I wanted to wait a bit before writing about it because I didn't want to do the usual knee-jerk debunking. I think the movie attempts some subtle things that deserve a more careful approach.

The Fourth Kind goes to extraordinary lengths to give the appearance of a greater basis in fact than is usually the case. They provide to-camera statements by Milla Jovovich and the producer to the effect that the events in the film are dramatisations of archived footage. Sample footage is shown alongside part of the dramatisations, apparently to validate the dramatisation. The actors in the archive footage are not credited.

This is an innovative example of a kind of film-making where a fictional story is dressed up as discovered or documentary footage. Examples include The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfeild, Paranormal Activity, and Quarantine. Usually the footage shown takes the form of cheap video-cam footage and exposition to camera. The images are usually distorted and dramatic moments or the camera is not quite pointed in the right direction, forcing the audience to fill in the gaps.

The technique is not unique to film. Camp-fire spooky stories have taken this form as long as spooky stories have existed.  The pilot which launched The X Files TV series pilot opens with a statement that the episode was based on documented cases; the storyline involves extraterrestrial abductions. When this approach is used, it can be controversial. Orson Wells received criticism for the 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. There were reports of listeners responding as if the alien invasion was actually happening even though the program was part of an advertised broadcast of fictional dramas and repeated notices that the broadcast was fictional.

The trouble with making spooky stories seem real is that some people will believe them, even against evidence to the contrary. Spooky tales can take on a life of their own. As a result, verité-style dramas are usually careful to drop hints that what you are seeing is not real.

The X Files makes no attempt to appear other than a series of spooky tales. Cloverfeild includes the destruction, by nuclear weapons, of New York City - so the events are clearly untrue. Blair Witch was billed as fiction, and the filming techniques were publicly discussed by the film-makers. Quarantine was fronted by a well-known actress clearly playing a role, as well as being billed as a fiction. Paranormal Activity was Blair Witch indoors, the cinematic release ends with clear CGI, and the cinematic techniques were openly discussed in public.

The verité style features ordinary locations, bad photography, art-school acting, and a plot which exploits established, cliché, motifs. The Fourth Kind mixes the verité "found footage" style with the more familiar, "based on a true story", dramatization. This is the opposite of what we are used to: documentary style presentation with "recreations" added to illustrate, otherwise boring, reports.

The archive footage follows the standard verité, found footage, approach. The footage is of remarkably poor quality, there are scanning artefacts, the colours are washed out, and the camera is mostly static - on a tripod some place or mounted on a patrol car. There are some tell-tales in the footage which suggest it is not intended to be taken for real life: the same props appear in different scenes, some of the footage is full screen at 16x9, which we would not expect from a c.2000 video camera, and some scenes show CGI effects like the enlarged eyes on Dr Tyler's interview. (Note that high quality video was routinely available in to 00s, washing out the colours and such artefacts are used by film-makers to indicate age in a recording just like flicker indicates old films, static indicates old sound recordings and sepia colours indicate vintage photos.) The Nome Alaska of the footage is not the real-life town (Nome is quite flat while there are mountains in the footage.)

The themes in the film follow standard abduction motifs and an underlying theory (aliens started human civilisation) even more well worn, in keeping with the reliance on cliché common to verité films. The alien smell comes from Communion, an early work featuring alien abduction, the washed-out colour is also a feature of The X Files, though not so extreme.

There are clues, via anachronism, in the plot as well. Possibly the most clear is the extraterrestrial language. It is presented as identical to ancient Sumerian, a dead language nobody knows how to pronounce. For the sake of study, an arbitrary, academic, pronunciation is accepted ... and this is what the extraterrestrials used in the film. The movie Stargate avoided this anachronism by making the ancient Egyptian language unintelligible until it was noticed that the native speakers were just pronouncing it differently from academic norms. More subtly, the most likely skeptical explanation of Dr Tyler's experiences, sleep paralysis and displacement psychosis, are introduced as themes early in the movie.

That this is 100% fiction aside, The Fourth Kind is strikingly true to the stronger accounts of alien abduction, as a phenomenon.

The film is fairly accurate in its depiction of the subjective reports of sleep paralysis and what comes out when these cases are investigated under hypnosis by people who believe in alien abductions, particularly when the therapist is also suffering some sort of trauma. That is what happens in the film.

Dr Tyler has a history of sleep paralysis from when she was young, she is also a suggestible personality as evidenced by how easily she can be hypnotised. Her husband, Will, commits suicide while she is asleep, but she hallucinates or otherwise becomes convinced that he was murdered in a manner inconsistent with the suicide. (He shot himself in the head, but she imagines a knife attack to the stomach.) Her son is hostile but uncommunicative and her daughter has hysterical blindness as a displacement psychosis. For some reason, her doctor (who also appears to be a colleague and mentor) has failed to confront her with the facts of her husbands suicide ... or, perhaps he has tried before and the results were somehow discouraging, perhaps he is too close to his patient. Whatever the reason, Tyler has been encouraged in her delusion. She has also been receiving hypnotherapy by someone who is encouraging the delusion.

Prior to his suicide Will was researching sleep disorders in Nome, a small town in Alaska. He has found some patients suffering insomnia and sleep paralysis who share an hallucination of an owl. Tyler decides to continue this research.

She proceeds to hypnotise the target subjects. These are not virgin subjects: they have already been part of Will's undocumented research. Shared hallucinations are common in sleep deprivation and sleep paralysis. The commonality comes from shared culture - perhaps the subjects have come across a folk myth concerning a white owl? Cultural conditions is a strong part of sleep hallucinations. In other cultures subjects report seeing angels or demons and imps. If this possibility was investigated, it did not form part of the film.

The first subject is easily hypnotised. He shows the usual strong response indicating he has been suffering sleep paralysis. He goes on to have a psychotic break in which he kills his family and himself. Tyler witnesses this and shows strong guilt, as a psychologist, over her failure to anticipate the break. She becomes convinced that the events are related to her husband's "murder" but does not explain why she believes this. In events leading up to the murder/suicide is the first Tyler come across some syllables which are later discovered to be a bit of disjointed nonsense in the Sumerian language.

Tyler is in the habit of recording her impressions on tape before going to bed then giving it to an assistant to be transcribed the next day. For some reason, one night, she failed to turn the recorder off. After her comments, there is a short pause, then dramatic screaming mixed with distorted glossolalia-appearing sounds, some of which appear to be like the Sumerian syllables before. The tape recorded sounds made by Tyler while asleep. It is not surprising that she was having nightmares themed around the previous dramatic events.

The second subject is hypnotised in the presence of a witness - Tyler's doctor - who plays the Scully (tame skeptic) role in the film. The subject is aware of what happened to the last subject, and is apprehensive. The session is characterised by violent convulsions. Wikipedia claims "levitation" occurred and levitation claims are common with violent convulsions though I did not see that on my viewing and the tame sceptic does not comment on it. Overall he is a bit of a wuss and his unwillingness to credibly challenge Tylers ideas contributes to the developing conflicts.

Tyler, influenced by a book of Will's linking extraterrestrials with ancient Sumer, decides to contact the author to help "translate" the weird syllables. Naturally he provides an interpretation consistent with his own obsessions. Our Scully should have suggested consulting another expert to corroborate the conclusions of the first.

The second subject is hypnotised again, in hospital, with the Scully and expert in attendance. The camera shows much the same convulsions (dramatisation shows supernatural levitation, but the archived footage camera footage is inconclusive due to a bad angle) as before, more glossolalia which is again interpreted as ancient Babylonian. The archive footage becomes extremely distorted towards the end. The convulsions are so severe the subject suffers spinal damage and is paralysed from the neck down.

Naturally these incidents are of concern to the police. Though her witnesses tell the police that she did not cause the injuries, she is kept under house arrest with a single deputy stationed out front. The sequence is recorded through the patrol cruiser's roof camera. (The house and mountains in the police camera footage are in Switzerland, not Alaska.) Initially all is quiet, then there are sounds of panic coming from the house. The deputy exits the car, but stops as the footage becomes badly distorted. He yells that an object has appeared over the house and the occupants are being dragged out. The visible part of the footage shows a round silhouette obscuring part of the sky. The house and trees also show as silhouettes in the footage so it is impossible to tell where or what the intruding silhouette is. The most compelling part of this scene is the deputies statements - since he is not looking through the camera. Later the deputy says he was confused and didn't know what he saw. We discover, through dramatisation, that Tyler's daughter is missing. Hysterical Tyler describes her daughter as having been taken in a beam of light from a UFO. The deputy did not report a beam of light.

Tyler is convinced not only that aliens have abducted her daughter but that she can contact them through being hypnotised herself. For some reason her doctor decides to help her in this and hypnotic regression is attempted to the time of the audio recording (the one with the screaming, after subject 1). The regression reveals only what Tyler has already decided has happened. There is more distorted Sumerian, which is clearer than previous examples, accompanied by convulsions and a hugely distorted audio/video recording.

Tyler reports that all three (herself, her doctor, and the Sumerian expert) were abducted, but only she remembers it. When finally confronted with the facts of her husbands suicide, she appeals to the recorded footage, arguing that just because she hallucinated that one event does not mean the rest was hallucinated. There is left hanging the possibility that Will's suicide had similar motivations as subject 1 - if the extraterrestrial hypothesis is accepted. This echoes Robert Anton Wilson in Werewolf Bridge: "Do not discount what I say because I am mad, I am mad because what I say is true."

On the weight of the evidence, and notwithstanding further statements from the deputy, what we have is a traumatised therapist transferring aspects of that trauma to susceptible patients via hypnotic suggestion. Herself suggestible, and delusional, her psychosis was reinforced by a well-meaning friend and an academic keen to reinforce his own ideas. Her daughter's mental disorder was a source of emotional pressure. It is unclear whether the daughter left (by the back way) by herself or was murdered and carried out. In Alaska, people wander off into the wood and die quite often. Some of the bodies go missing for years. However, foul play and a subsequent psychotic displacement cannot be ruled out.

I should repeat here though that the overwhelming evidence is that the "archive footage" is undeniably part of the fiction of the movie. The real Dr Tyler of the archive footage was played (uncredited) by Charlotte Milchard who was also in Mindflesh and Sunstroke. She even lists the role as "Co-Lead" in her CV. There are lots of photos online.

I don't think the archive footage is intended to be taken for "real". However, there has been a dearth of statements from the production concerning this (compare Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity). I would have expected to see Charlotte and Milla in photos posed together at some point, for example. I suspect that much of the criticism about the "faked" evidence is more to do with a feeling that the film-makers are insulting the audiences intelligence by overtly dressing the archive footage as factual. Had the statements to camera not been made, the film would have received more praise. I would have liked to see the film finish with an interview with a skeptical expert providing an analysis similar to above pointing out the sleep disorders and the problems with hypnotic regression in abduction claims. It could be framed as an independent report and would have tied together the films main themes nicely.

Overall the movie is fairly tense, and novel enough to be worth a look. It should be coming off the overnight rentals in NZ now - check it out. Just remember: it is entertainment.

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