Everybody knows that movies — whether based on fact or fiction — are rarely pure reality. All Hollywood films, to differing degrees, expect you to suspend your disbelief in order to make them enjoyable. The theater is a land of fantasy; if every movie was just everyday stuff, where would be the fun in that? We expect a little embellishment in film. After all, it’s fun to escape our boring lives for two hours now and then.
But every once in a while a film comes along that is so unbelievable that the typical viewer may find it hard to immerse themselves in the plot. That’s where the “based on a true story” line comes in. If the plot of a particular film seems too crazy to be realistic, why not say “Hey! We know this is going to sound like total bullshit….but it’s not! Honest!” A surprising amount of viewers believe that films like The Exorcist (sequels notwithstanding) or The Mothman Prophcies are true stories. Most others would believe that they are loosely based on actual events, or at least inspired by someone’s perception of events that may or may not have happened. (I found an interesting list of other “based on a true story” films here.)
Today, however, we have the good ol’ internets, and nearly limitless information is just a click away. People don’t just call “bullshit” anymore…they pull out their smartphone and Google it. The film industry, smart as it is, has adapted to this trend. In order to help viewers become more engaged, “based on a true story” movie makers have begun to set up faux-science websites which direct curious Googlers into fantasy land.
One recent example of this is the upcoming movie entitled 2012, based on the (completely false) Nibiru/Mayan Doomsday myth. In order to hype this month’s theatrical release, the makers have created a scientific-looking “Institute for Human Continuity” website that is supposed to be all about saving our species from the apocalypse. However, this website states at various places that it is “part of the 2012 movie experience” and a look around suggests that it is actually a front for some sort of contest. Although it is dressed up to get the viewer’s imagination going, I suspect that most adults would be able to tell that it is not an actual organization but rather a website promoting the film.
The film that really takes the cake, though, is The Fourth Kind, a film about alleged alien abductions in Nome, Alaska. It bills itself as being “based on actual case studies”. The cases were 24 people who disappeared from the Nome area during a span of roughly 40 years. The film features “archival footage” of a Dr. Abigail Tyler, who allegedly used hypnosis to uncover evidence of alien abductions. Searches for Abigail Tyler turned up a Nome Nugget article (the Nome Nugget is the city’s local newspaper), credited to editor Nancy McGuire, about Tyler’s arrival to the town, as well as an article allegedly penned by Tyler in the Alaska Psychiatry Journal. It would seem, at first glance anyway, that there might be some truth to this story.
The State Licensing Board has never heard of Abigail Tyler. No one in Nome has ever heard of Abigail Tyler. Ms. McGuire — real editor of the real Nome Nugget newspaper — says that she has never heard of Abigail Tyler, and certainly never wrote the article that someone credited to her. Nobody in Alaska’s psychiatric circles has ever heard of a publication called the Alaska Psychiatric Journal. The two websites in question, with the news article and journal article, have now seemingly been abducted by aliens themselves, but when they were functioning were surprisingly vacant: nothing else on the domain except the page linked to Google. No home page, no nothing. It’s all a big fraud.
It would appear that the only real thing about this film is that 24 Nome-area residents did go missing during that time period. The FBI investigated and determined that alcohol abuse and harsh winter weather were to blame. A few people suspected a serial killer. Nobody suspected encounters with extraterrestrials. Whatever the cause, many of the family, friends and neighbors of these real people have taken offense that Hollywood would hijack their deaths and distort their stories to push a flick.
I take offense to the fact that the studios have engaged in a deliberate attempt to deceive people. Obviously I don’t believe that most “based on a true story” films approach anything resembling an accurate portrayal of the facts. But I do believe that most of them are loosely based on actual events, or at least on events that someone had perceived to have happened before the film was created. For example, the Exorcist is supposedly based on a real exorcism. I don’t believe that a little girl was possessed by Satan, which caused her head to swivel 360 degrees while she flew around the room spewing pea soup. However I do believe that, at the very least, the film is based on rumors that preceded it. In other words, while the events depicted in the film are almost certainly embellishments of the wildest degree, at least they are actually based on something.
The Fourth Kind is a measure worse, in my opinion, because instead of just perpetuating an already-existing myth, the creators have gone out of their way to make up their own tale after the fact. And, unlike 2012, there are no little reminders here and there that this is all part of the “movie experience”. The creators of The Fourth Kind actually want you to believe that there are legitimate scientists and doctors out there using hypnotherapy to uncover evidence of alien abduction, and that their film contains actual archival footage of this happening. To this end, they attempted to cook up evidence to confuse people who have enough sense to research their claims rather than accept them at face value.
That’s a low blow in my book. It’s one thing to throw a “based on a true story” line at the beginning of the film to trick some gullible people. If some moviegoers believe everything they see on a movie, it’s their own fault for not practicing any critical thinking skills. But The Fourth Kind goes beyond all that. It’s not really based on anything, not even the wildest urban legend. Despite this — or rather because of it — the studios have completely fabricated evidence to trick viewers who want more info.
As a fan of movies, I don’t appreciate being lied to. And I don’t think the families of the 24 missing Nome residents appreciate their loved ones’ demise being hijacked to make a buck.