November 05, 2009

Fourth Kind, The

starstar

A movie review by James Berardinelli



Fourth Kind, The

SCIENCE FICTION/HORROR:

United States, 2009

U.S. Release Date:

2009-11-06

Running Length:

1:38

MPAA Classification:

PG-13 (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

2:35:1

Cast:

Milla Jovovich, Elias Koteas, Will Patton, Hakeem Kae-Kazim

Director:

Olatunde Osunsanmi

Screenplay:

Olatunde Osunsanmi

Cinematography:

Lorenzo Senatore

Music:

Atli Orvarsson

U.S. Distributor:

Universal Pictures

Subtitles:

none


Science fiction has always been fascinated by the "first contact" scenario: what would it be like if intelligent life from another planet decided to visit our little corner of the universe? Often, these tales are allegorical in nature, and there are many more in which the aliens are hell-bent on subjugation than those in which they come in peace. For every Close Encounters of the Third Kind, there are a half-dozen Independence Days. Director Olantunde Osunsanmi's contribution to the genre uses the basic template of an "alien abduction" tale and tweaks it in a couple of ways. The result is not entirely uninteresting, but it suffers from some ill-advised decisions. In fact, the film's "hook" may be its greatest detraction.

(Spoilers - although not explicit ones - follow.) Osunsanmi sees in his project an opportunity to blend genres in a way that seasoned filmmakers like John Carpenter (with The Thing) and Ridley Scott (with Alien) have done: take a basic science fiction premise and steep it in horror. There are some good scares in The Fourth Kind. In fact, it could be argued that the movie works better as an example of horror than one of science fiction. When it comes to the latter category, it starts out on thin ice which proceeds to crack and eventually give way altogether as the story progresses.

Osunsanmi has elected not to present his film as a straightforward narrative. Instead, he wraps the story in faux documentary footage. The film's publicity and marketing material suggest that The Fourth Kind is based on actual occurrences , but the reality is that this is as "based on a true story" as Fargo was (not at all). It's all part of a backstory that extends beyond the screen. Osunsnmi purports include "real" footage of unexplained phenomena that transpired in Nome, Alaska during the early years of the 21st century, but there are plenty of clues both in the footage and outside of it that debunk its veracity. One doesn't need to be aware that no one named Abbey Tyler practiced psychology in Alaska to know this woman is not real. The makeup applied to her face during her "interviews" is not convincing and the unidentified actress playing Abbey may cause pause even for those who want to buy what Osunsanmi is selling.

There's a problem with The Fourth Kind's structure, and this gets to the heart of why the movie is less effective than it might have been if it had been presented in a straightforward manner. Many scenes are presented as "re-creations" with professional actors Milla Jovovich (as Abbey), Elias Koteas, Will Patton, and Hakeem Kae-Kazim assuming the identities of their counterparts. In an attempt to enhance the illusion, the filmmakers often show the "documentary" footage alongside the "re-creations" via a split-screen. There are times when this works in a History Channel way, but it kills any hope at character identification and genuine involvement in the story. It feels more like an experiment than an actual movie. Films like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity succeed because the user accepts the illusion of being given an unfiltered perspective into characters' lives. Mixing traditional filmmaking techniques with this approach results in a forced, contrived production.

The story focuses on psychotherapist Abbey Tyler, who has noticed that several of her patients are exhibiting similar symptoms and experiencing the same kinds of hallucinations. Abbey is perhaps not the best person to be advising anyone on mental health issues since her own sanity is in a fragile state as a result of her husband's murder at the hands of unknown forces. Abbey has come to believe that she and her patients are victims of alien abductions and experimentation - a contention about which her therapist (Elias Koteas) is dubious and which the local sheriff (Will Patton) sees as the ravings of a damaged mind. When two of Abbey's patients experience tragedies immediately after undergoing hypnosis during sessions with her, the sheriff decides she's a threat to the community.

On the surface, this material might seem to provide fertile ground for a mystery about whether the abductions are happening or whether Abbey is deranged, but the use of the "documentary" footage stacks the deck. No one watching this movie is likely to come away from the theater thinking Abbey is a nutjob. The filmmakers want us to believe the aliens are real, so that's how things are slanted. Unfortunately, by taking this tactic, the movie eliminates some potentially compelling drama in favor of a more familiar approach to the concept of alien contact.

The title The Fourth Kind refers to J. Allen Hynek's four categorizations of alien encounters. (The first kind=sighting. The second kind=evidence. The third kind=contact. The fourth kind=abduction.) Steven Spielberg previously referenced this in his Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a far different motion picture. The title reference may generate some interest in the film among UFO enthusiasts, although it's difficult to determine how they will feel about Osunsanmi's faking of documentary footage - something that doesn't help their overall credibility. (One wonders how long it will be before the word "hoax" is used in association with this movie.)

Although it's fascinating to dissect the movie on an intellectual level and examine what pieces and structural choices work and donít work, I'm sure that's not how the filmmakers intended their production to be approached. On a purely narrative level, The Fourth Kind offers the occasional "boo!" moment but is too tame (consider the PG-13 rating) to generate any lasting horror and too contrived to work on a dramatic level. The best thing I can say about it is at least it's not another Asian horror remake.

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