Brandon's Word: The Fourth Kind is Outright Malarkey!
by Brandon Lee Tenney
November 6, 2009
DISCLAIMER - Please Read Before Continuing:
So, here's the thing. This past week I found myself in Orlando, Florida. (I'll spare you the details, but it had something to do with me turning yet another year older, a seven-hour game of Monopoly, and a hedgehog.) While in Orlando, William Goss invited me to attend a screening of The Fourth Kind with him. Since I was missing all of the Los Angeles screening dates, I thought, Why not? Truth be told, the trailer was (hell, still is) one of my favorites of the year. It's creepy in all the right ways. It's intriguing without giving too much away, and it's visually stunning. That said, I was pretty damned excited to see The Fourth Kind.
CUT TO: A darkened theatre, more than a few cell phones fleck the blackness like annoying little fireflies. My eyes narrowed, an eyebrow raised: What the fuck just happened? What the fuck just happened was that the film's reels were arranged in the projector out of order. If I were to guess, I'd say reels one and two were placed as they were supposed to be, but reels three and four were swapped and reel five remained at the end. Regardless of the order, the end was in the middle and the middle was at the end. Therefore, I was privy to an unintended cut of The Fourth Kind where the film did its best to end an hour or so in and the middle did its best to set up the end far too late.
I'm telling you all of this because this experience is by no means what you should expect if you choose to see The Fourth Kind in theatres this weekend. I'm also telling you this because it has undoubtedly effected my ability to review The Fourth Kind. However, I'm writing this review anyway because even having seen a butchered cut of the film, I'm quite certain I saw enough to at least provide you all with an honest reaction and critique of parts of the film. I also believe in a semblance of transparency; it's only fair that you know that I didn't see the film as it was intended. Take from that what you will. But even if you choose not to continue reading, if you think that me dubbing The Fourth Kind malarkey is itself malarkey, at least know this: I think having the reels out of order was only an improvement upon the film.
Note: SPOILERS BELOW
The Fourth Kind is fiction. Make no mistake about that. The film is a fictionalized actual account involving actual actors who then reenact those fictionalized actual accounts as themselves, but also as the fictionalized characters from those "actual accounts." Confused? Yeah, well, The Fourth Kind is too. And that's its biggest problem; it's just too much of everything and not enough of one thing. That thing being, in a word, focus. As the film starts, Milla Jovovich introduces herself as herself, actor Millia Jovovich, and lays out the film's plan (as I've stated above, but not in so many words) that she and the other actors in the film will be reenacting the real found-footage recorded, for the most part, by Dr. Abigail Tyler, a psychologist from Nome, Alaska, involving a string of unexplained disappearances. From there, the film layers these reenactments on top of the video recordings from Dr. Tyler's "archive" of "case studies." It also splices in a "real" interview conducted by the actual director of the film, Olatunde Osunsanmi, and the supposedly "real" Dr. Abigail Tyler. Oh, and creepy images of owls. There's lots of those.
After reading that, I'm hoping that your thoughts are synonymous with something along the line of, "That doesn't sound good at all. I thought this was about aliens?" Rest assured, it is. It's very much about aliens, in fact. The premise is actually quite terrifying. Hundreds of unexplained disappearances in the desolate town of Nome, Alaska (a town that can only be reached by air travel). Shared visions, shared black-outs between residents of Nome, collective unconscious style. And when we, the audience, become privy to the "actual" abductions, well, they're affecting. Some of the case studies, in all their grainy video-glory, are pretty creepy. A slack-jawed Dr. Tyler settling back to her couch after being levitated by some other-worldly force. But, alas, there's not enough of them. Those videos will start only to be split-screened with the reenactment, playing side-by-side, just so you know what's going on. As if it's even possible not to know.
Which brings me to my next complaint: The Fourth Kind thinks you're an idiot. It thinks anyone within a half-mile radius of a theatre projecting it is an idiot. On top of the split-screens to usher us into the reenactments, like a mother leading her toddler across a busy intersection, the dialog in the film is just, well, it's just the worst. On the nose, uninteresting, and more like a stream of consciousness of what you, the audience, should be thinking rather than what actual people should be saying. Milla Jovovich is serviceable in her role. Elias Koteas is actually quite good as Jovovich's colleague, Abel. But there's one character, played by Will Patton of all people, who may actually go down as one of my Top 3 worst characters of the year: Sheriff August. Sheriff August is about as stereotypical a small town, bumpkin police officer can be. He's ignorant and needlessly hot-headed. He's downright stupid and is apparently without any sort of deductive reasoning skills. Oh, and he's terrible at his job. It's almost phenomenal how outlandishly bad Sheriff August is. That is, if it wasn't so horrible. Which it is.
So what of the plot? That plot that had so much promise. It all falls a bit flat, not because it's uninteresting, but because it's kept at such a distance from the audience. With nearly four degrees of removal from the "actual" happenings, I was never able to lose myself in the film. And because it's inevitable, due to the film's employment of "self-recorded, found-footage," The Fourth Kind is no Paranormal Activity. The Fourth Kind, in fact, is a spectacular foil for Paranormal Activity, allowing for a direct example to point to that elucidates exactly why Paranormal Activity is such a success. Paranormal Activity is a film by which all of these types of films will be judged for a long while forth. In that film, there's one degree of separation from the events being shown on screen. We're to believe that the events being shown actually happened because there's nothing else being shown on screen to tell us otherwise. No matter what happens on screen, we believe it because we have to. There's no other choice.
But with The Fourth Kind, there is a choice. There's tons of them. At the very beginning we're told that what you're going to see is real, but it's going to be reenacted and embellished. Right there, two degrees of separation. It's easy to remind yourself that what you're watching isn't real when, well, you've been told that it isn't. And when one's film is depending on that hocus-pocus that is convincing an audience that what they're seeing is actually, really real, the last thing that one should do is give the audience a reason not to believe. And when the most frightening scene in The Fourth Kind has half of the screen taken up by a the waveform from an oscilloscope while an alien is speaking broken Sumerian, it really shows that when there's a small degree of separation, the film may have worked.
Though it didn't. It doesn't. It could have further explored the Science vs. Belief in the skewed way that it hinted at, where it's the woman of science who's being persecuted for believing, but it doesn't. Not enough, anyway. And when it ends, we're left with a mishmash of Sumerian history (covered far more interestingly in the book Chariots of the Gods or the History Channel special "Ancient Aliens"), collective unconscious experiences, some creepy abduction scenes, a whole lot of disbelief, and an inconclusive conclusion that points toward Dr. Abigail Tyler's own psychotic break instead of an "actual" abduction. Oh, and did I mention owls. There's lots of those.
It's kind of amazing the lengths the filmmakers went to to assert that The Fourth Kind is based, entirely, on reality. Having the actors who played the characters in the "case studies" uncredited, launching an ill-fated web campaign, and convincing some old-media outlets that the stories are real. It's amazing because all of that work (that really didn't work in the first place) is undermined by the film itself. The Fourth Kind is only mildly entertaining, more often for how ridiculous its characters act and how unbelievable its plot becomes, and it's thoroughly insulting. And I love aliens. I love alien movies. I love abduction theories and UFO sightings and extraterrestrial conspiracy theories. But I did not, I do not, love The Fourth Kind.
I'd say I hated it, but hate is too strong an emotion. I'm merely indifferent to it. And that's the absolute worst a film can do, in my opinion. To evoke nary an emotion at all. Oh, but did I mention there's owls? There's lots of those. And they were pretty cool, I guess.