Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Fourth Kind: Northern exposure or faked Alaska?

At the start of
The Fourth Kind Milla Jovovich stands on a turntable while the surrounding forest spins around ominously behind her. She says her name is Milla Jovovich, and she’ll be playing the role of Dr. Abigail Tyler, the Nome, Alaska psychiatrist who back in 2000 underwent a series of almost unimaginably traumatic events, including the death of her husband, her daughter’s sudden blindness, and the repeated abductions of both her and several of her patients by extraterrestrials. Tyler’s trials are the subject of writer/director Olatunde Osunsanmi’s new movie, which is, what? A documentary? A thriller? A steaming pile of bullshit? Let’s say that in one sense or another it’s all three. Jovovich warns us that some of the images we’re about to see may disturb us. Given what audiences these days are accustomed to being put through, the implication seems to be that what’ll make these images so disturbing is that they’re real, people. Okay, I mean, maybe!

If The Fourth Kind wasn’t already sufficiently afflicted with dubiousness by being set in the state recently governed by Sarah Palin, it must really be pissing off Osunsanmi and his people that the movie’s coming out so soon after the runaway success of Paranormal Activity, a horror film that worked even when audiences knew it was bullshit. The continual reminders that everything we see and hear in The Fourth Kind is either the real thing—ie: ostensible archival video recordings, including one of a murder-suicide, usually interrupted by bursts of distortion when something really wild happens—or a re-enactment of extraordinarily high productions values, is initially annoying and eventually just comical, a glossier, more intrusive spin on the Unsolved Mysteries tack. Osunsanmi frequently runs the archival stuff right alongside the reenactments in flashy split-screen, as if to emphasize how meticulously he’s restaged everything, while the rest of us sit there wondering why the hell he didn’t just let the real thing speak for itself, especially since the grainy video footage constitutes what are by far the most chilling moments in the movie. The aliens apparently speak Sumerian, and let me tell you that language is just plain freaky.

The “real” Abigail Tyler, interviewed in a cheesy-looking studio by a gentle if barely interested Osunsanmi, shows up a lot, walking us through the story. She appears, perhaps as a result of her trauma, to be in pretty rough shape these days, her orb-like eyes tired, her hair full of split ends, her skin so pale it’s nearly gray. It feels like a sick joke—the woman clearly resembles the popular image of an alien, the sort that share a lot of screen-time with Christopher Walken in Communion. If this poor woman really is a victim of even half of what she claims, you’d think the filmmakers would offer her the dignity of a shampoo at least. But this is only one example of how Osunsanmi over-calculates his attempts at verisimilitude. It’s as though he worries the movie’s interest will evaporate completely if we start to doubt its basis in truth. To be sure, several scenes are pretty riveting, pretty unnerving, and supporting turns from the likes of Elias Koteas and Will Patton help flesh out the story and sense of place immensely. But the amateurish fumbling with formal tropes distance as often as they involve, and the last third or so suffers from meandering inconclusiveness.

None of these criticisms are meant as attacks on those who identify with the phenomenon addressed in The Fourth Kind, per se. The abundance of abduction stories of that pile up year after year most often incite dismissive laughter, but the task of engaging an audience in conversation about just what it is that generates such crippling trauma in so many people strikes me as a perfectly noble project. I just I wish it was handled differently. There was a guy sitting near me at my screening of The Fourth Kind—there were a lot of us, so I don't think I'm outing anyone here—who was clearly intensely affected by something happening onscreen. I considered asking him if he was okay but didn’t want to make him too self-conscious, at least not in the middle of the screening. I lost track of him afterwards. If nothing else I’d have liked to ask him what he thought of the movie, if it felt a little too close to something he’d experienced, whatever that might be. Maybe Osunsanmi did something substantial after all, shaking loose something latent in his audience. Maybe we better start setting up trip wires around our beds at night.


Paul Matwychuk said...

But you know what? As eye-rolling as some of its attempts to convince the audience that this story is real! REAL! 100% REAL! may be, it still got under my skin — and I found the blend of "actual" footage and re-enactments more interesting, on a conceptual level, than the more simplistic (but more highly praised) approach of Paranormal Activity. I felt an extra level of dread in seeing the "real" stuff play alongside the re-enactments — you know something horrible's going to happen, because why else would they be showing us the video? It puts you in the same position as the person being hypnotized — you're travelling helplessly towards an unknown but doubtlessly scary destination.

And come on, JB... that Sarah Palin crack is a real cheap shot. What, any movie set in Alaska is automatically dubious now? I think you're tipping your hand a little there.

Then again, alien abduction stories always creep me out. Maybe I'm making excuses for a bad movie that nevertheless sneaked up on me, but I think The Fourth Kind is cleverer than you're giving it credit for.

JB said...

Okay, so I've used up my cheap shot quota for the year (decade?). I certainly don't mean to over-praise PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, and there were indeed moments in FOURTH KIND that gave me a deep jolt, too--the pacing of the freak-outs was very deft. But I found that I just became more frustrated with it as I thought it over.

It might be because when the film started I was totally (dopily, perhaps) going along with the whole thing as though it was genuine, as though it really wanted to get to the bottom of something, however awkwardly, as though it was really concerned about the suffering of the people it claimed to represent, only gradually suspecting that Abigail Tyler was an overwrought invention. I felt jerked around in a way I didn't with, say, BLAIR WITCH, which, though not much of a movie (I watched it again recently, felt kinda bored) remains a pretty inspired stunt. Osunsanmi's on-screen non-presence didn't help.

I guess I took the whole thing too seriously--though I certainly didn't try to write about it too seriously. I was big into this stuff as a kid... What unnerved me about my whole experience of watching THE FOURTH KIND wasn't the film but that guy in the cinema with me. I can't stop wondering what was up with him. I want HIS review.