The new horror-suspense thriller The Fourth Kind is presented as a documentary a la The Blair Witch Project and the current Paranormal Activity. This movie is much, much scarier than either of those–but only if you’re willing to let it work on you. Plus, it actually makes sense.
While The Fourth Kind became the fourth most popular movie in the country in its first week and sixth most popular in its second, despite low budgets for production and promotion, critics have hated it–only 17 percent of the reviews have been positive, according to Rotten Tomatoes.
It appears that the critics’ failure to embrace the film is largely a result of the filmmakers’ choice to present The Fourth Kind as if it were an actual documentary film, instead of taking the understated approach of Blair Witch and Paranormal, in the sense that these pictures only allude to the documentary frame. In The Fourth Kind, by contrast, real celebrities identify themselves as actors performing a reenactment of the events in the story, we get split-screen shots of "archival" footage side-by-side with the "reenactments," the director presents himself under his own name as an investigator, and so on.
If one is willing to pretend that this is a real documentary or at least ignore the obvious fact that it is not one, there’s a pretty scary movie in there. But if the viewer lacks the capacity or the will to "play pretend," the movie becomes not an experience but a competition in finding the filmmaker’s failures–a "meta-experience," if you will. Thus the complaints about The Fourth Kind have not been much about traditional elements of a movie or storytelling but instead about the lack of technical adherence to conventions of the documentary genre.
Translation: Critics wouldn’t be caught dead admitting they got caught up in an amateurish-looking imitation of a documentary.
It’s useful to remember here that every movie, play, or fictional story requires the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Much of our ability to carry this out is built in by the culture. The conventions of drama–three-line phone conversations that end suddenly and without a good-bye, four people crowded on the same side of the table for the convenience of the camera instead of their own comfort, that sort of thing–are so familiar that we no longer process them as being outside of experience and a distraction from the realism of the scene, even though they would strike us as jarring in real life.
This is one reason we can praise certain war movies, for example, as realistic when the soldiers don’t bleed and the foreign villains speak perfect English. The extent to which we praise movies that require extra effort to suspend disbelief depends on our sympathy or interest in what else is there–the story, the characters, the message. The Fourth Kind is a pretty good scary movie that is getting lousy reviews because it requires too much suspension of disbelief.
That is a shame, because the thing that impedes enjoyment of the movie for so many people (especially professional critics) is not any deficiencies in the story or presentation, it’s that they’ve seen too many movies to "play pretend" with this one.
So the inability to suspend disbelief is not quite precise enough a diagnosis. Call it the refusal to "suspend sophistication." We’re too steeped in media (I won’t say we’re "too smart," because wise people can set aside their expectations) to appreciate what the groundbreaking culture observer Robert Warshow called "the immediate experience." I believe most people who don’t like The Fourth Kind are less interested in how they are truly inclined to react to the movie than how they believe they are are supposed to react.
This is especially likely to be true of movie critics–and that is why so many people find most movie criticism to be both pretentious and useless. That, and because most of it is.
In that spirit, here’s my review of The Fourth Kind: Scary movie. Fun way to spend a couple of hours. Worth your ten bucks, definitely worth a rental. Oh–and if you want some insurance toward a good time, focus on the spooky stuff, not on pointing out to your friends that you can see the little man behind the curtain.