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X-Filing Away

MOVIE REVIEW
The Fourth Kind (2009)

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Simon Vesrano/Universal Pictures

The pretension that suffocates "The Fourth Kind" belittles common sense. Writer-director Olatunde Osunsanmi wants his film — equal parts dramatization of a Nome, Alaska-based psychologist's close encounters of the fourth kind (alien abduction), which were supposedly recorded in 2000 and said "archival footage" from the hypnosis sessions — to leave the audience in uncomfortable deliberation: Was what we just saw real? Could that have actually happened? The way Mr. Osunsanmi conducts "The Fourth Kind," though, those questions are repeatedly silenced by his increasingly hokey structure. A stacked deck of sci-fi promise is squandered.

It doesn't take long for the chips to fall. Milla Jovovich, as herself (not yet in character as the aforementioned psychologist), introduces the film as "disturbing," leering into the camera with stone-faced conviction — surrounded by smoke-machine-ravaged woods — as the camera spins like a top. With such a melodramatic preface, "The Fourth Kind" would've needed aliens to literally jump through the screen for his Mr. Osunsanmi's film to follow through on such an overcompensating build-up. A few genuinely unsettling moments aside, the reality-meets-fiction experiment becomes a victim of its own lofty intentions.

Mr. Osunsanmi, a feature first-timer, seems to lacks the self-confidence needed to sell the material, relying on a neverending finger-wag. His cries of "This really happened, folks!" ring too loudly. By the time both he and Ms. Jovovich deliver a tag-team epilogue back in those far-from-subtle woods, "The Fourth Kind" becomes a X-file, alright. File this one under "extreme head-beating."

It's not as if Mr. Osunsanmi had little to work with here. The back story explored in "The Fourth Kind" could have made for a dynamite "Unsolved Mysteries" episode. In early October of 2000, living, breathing Dr. Abigal Tyler (played earnestly by Ms. Jovovich) noticed a pattern in a handful of patients all suffering from sleep deprivation. In their dreams, each of her subjects had seen a white owl with a serious staring problem, and that'd lead to distorted memory and possible extraterrestrial activity. Having seen her husband murdered by an invisible force, Dr. Tyler (a single mother of two) felt especially connected to the phenomena; and her investigation led to mental breakdown, one that she's still battling. The audience knows this about her current state because Mr. Osunsanmi interviews the real-life Dr. Tyler on camera, with soundbites from their chat sprinkled throughout the film.

The validity of her claims is no less suspect by the film's end than it's been throughout the marketing campaign. Research into the recent history of Nome, Alaska shows that the town has indeed suffered from disappearances, though credited to alcohol and the area's harsh winter conditions, no UFO-drivers. Compounding the film's truth are reports by an Alaskan state licenser that no one named Abigal Tyler has ever been licensed in any profession within the state. All of this would be meaningless if "The Fourth Kind" was ultimately successful as a straight-up thriller. Nobody seems to care that "The Blair Witch Project" sold itself as the real deal before its opening weekend triumph. Mr. Osunsanmi's film goes so far as to show a real-or-not (you make the call) murder-suicide, though, and that's a whole other level of probable insensitivity.

Mr. Osunsamni certainly labors to convince. The wide-eyed, fried-looking Dr. Tyler is always around a scene's corner, ready for her next unstable close-up — another chance to show just how unlike her Ms. Jovovich looks. A similar scarcity in resemblance is present in the film's patients-come-to-life, the 2000-taped footage's star shown alongside an actor through overused split screen. On the left, the intense, static-covered case study video; on its right, an exaggerated reenactment. You're practically waiting for three-piece-suit-clad Robert Stack to walk into frame. It's no mystery that the footage-only climax, which brings the outer-body hell down upon Dr. Tyler herself, is the film's creepiest sequence. For once, "The Fourth Kind" sticks to one gun and fires a devastating shot to the nerves.

"The Fourth Kind" has its eerie high points (turning an owl into a formidable presence can't be easy), and a pivotal scene involving levitation is quite effective. But his indecisiveness as a whole overpowers the film. Either take the "Fire in the Sky" route and completely fictionalize the based-on-true-events material, or go simply found footage. "The Fourth Kind" desperately wants to be a provocative hybrid of the two approaches. Its failure to meet that goal is all the more prescient whenever the non-Jovovich Dr. Tyler reappears on screen; toward a woman shown to be in dire emotional straits, you'd think a feeling of compassion would take the place of indifference.

THE FOURTH KIND

Opens on Nov. 6 in the United States.

Written and directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi; based on a story by Mr. Osunsanmi and Terry Lee Robbins; director of photography, Lorenzo Senatore; edited by Paul Covington; music by Atli Orvarsson; production designer, Carlos Silva Da Silva; produced by Paul Brooks, Joe Carnahan and Mr. Robbins; released by Universal Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes. This film is rated PG-13.

WITH: Milla Jovovich, Will Patton and Elias Koteas.

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