Friday, March 19, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Fourth Kind (2009)

In terms of UFO stories, there is this strange tradition in the modern cinema of the pseudo-documentary: a film that mixes stock footage of purported flying saucer sightings with newly-filmed, "dramatized" material.

For three decades, the "real" and the staged have been mixed in movie ventures including Target: Earth?, a film which featured actor Victor Buono playing an alien, plus real scientists including Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov.

The 1970s and early 1980s truly represented the heyday of UFO pseudo-documentary explorations like that, including UFOs: It Has Begun (1976), UFOs are Real (1979), UFO-Exclusive (1979) and UFO Syndrome (1981).

In the same decade, there were also a number of pseudo-documentaries pursuing author Erich von Däniken's popular hypothesis about "ancient astronauts" visiting man in pre-history, the whole Chariot of the Gods (1970)/In Search of Ancient Astronauts (1973) approach.

Surprisingly, the year 2009 brought a dedicated revival of these "alien encounter" formats...with a new twist, director Olatunde Osunsanmi's out-and-out horror effort The Fourth Kind.


Here, the filmmakers have also adopted The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Paranormal Activity's (2009) marketing scheme: selling their genre film as being entirely based on fact. The truth, of course, is that all the "authentic archival footage" featured throughout the film (captured by police cameras, home video cameras and other sources) is staged; prepared exclusively for this movie. Like the first-person camera approach of Paranormal Activity, this conceit is designed specifically to scare viewers: to make audiences believe that what it is witnessing is authentic.

The underlying conceit here is incredibly interesting, if a little complex. Director Osunsami employs split-screens on several occasions to place purportedly "real" archival footage (say of a police hostage situation on a front porch...) side-by-side with his staged representation/re-enactments of the same moments.

The trick, of course, is that both incidents are staged for the film; both are faked. Yet placed side-by-side in one frame-- with one heightened artificial image reinforcing the authenticity of the other -- audiences are asked to seek out the visual differences between grainy home video and apparent Hollywood confabulation. In this hunt, our eyes conclude that the home video is realistic, and actually buy into that (false) footage as being truthful. In other words, Osunsami deliberately deploys slightly-exaggerated Hollywood artifice to make us believe in the veracity of the cheap, home video material. And he's largely successful in his clever game too.


Indoctrinated in everything from America's Funniest Home Videos to Cops to World's Wildest Police Videos, modern TV and film viewers have come to instinctively trust the shaky, grainy, cheap approach to filmmaking, and, oppositely, inherently distrust the more accomplished, romantic, Hollywood approach. The latter is exemplified here by the presence of movie star Milla Jovovich in the lead role of "Dr. Abigail Tyler," a woman who uncovers a rash of alien abductions in Nome, Alaska during the first five days of October, 2000. Modern audiences crave (and subscribe) to naturalism in films these days, eschewing artifice and theatricality as much as possible. This movie encourages that impulse; asking us to reject the artifice of the Jovovich dramatizations and believe the naturalism (the lie...) of the 911 tapes, the police camera videos, the home video sources, and so forth.

Case in point: our main character. The Fourth Kind also presents another woman as the real Dr. Abigail Tyler, and let's just say, to paraphrase Wes Craven's Scream, she's no Milla Jovovich. Presented in an archival video "interview" from Chapman University (with director Osunsanmi, no less), we come to believe this unglamorous woman as "the real thing" because she is awkward, halting, relatively unattractive, and distinctly un-movie star-like. Of course, she's an actress made to appear that way.

This is where the movie proves genuinely smart. The "staged" re-enactment of scenes feature lovely Jovovich looking great and sexy in her stylish wardrobe, playing out hypnosis regression scenes against backgrounds that are more romantic, more affluent than what we see in the home video. Osunsanmi deliberately plays up the exaggerated production design in these sequences; they are an artist's heightened version of reality and we detect that fakery. Thus the documentary footage, lensed in less elaborate, less-stylish surroundings, seem increasingly real. The supposedly "documentary," archival footage moments deploy available light, less attractive actors than Hollywood would permit, poorer sound, and more naturalistic blocking and camera work. People step out of frame. The blocking cuts off heads during shots, action occurs off-screen, at the corners of perception, etc.

It takes about twenty-three minutes or so for the head to get accommodated to The Fourth Kind's fashion of operating, and you have to get through a cheesy opening by Jovovich, directly addressing the audience. She comes out of a blurry fog, as if awakening from a dream, and breaks the fourth wall. But here's the thing: we must remember that this is all part of the format and genre (the UFO pseudo-documentary) too. Hollywood "stars" (often slumming it, in need of a paycheck) were always asked to front this goofball stuff with all sincerity and pomposity, whether it was Jose Ferrer, Burgess Meredith or Rod Serling.

And Osunsanmi is uncannily skilled even at excavating the right visuals in the movie's re-enactments too. For instance, he finds exactly the right shot during a domestic dining room scene to visually express the absence of Tyler's husband, Will (who has died under mysterious circumstances). He also forges a scintillating sense of uneasiness and scope with the first shots of Tyler arriving in picturesque Nome, an isolated town that can only be reached by airplane. You get the impression from Tyler's flight over Nome -- an outcropping of human technology and community blanketed on all sounds by green mountain ranges -- that the town is the perfect "test tube" environment for alien abduction and experimentation. And no one has to say a word about that idea for it to carry thematic currency.

Occasionally, the movie missteps, no doubt. Early on, there's a crisply-edited montage of hypnosis sequences (featuring three of Tyler's clients) as they all discuss exactly the same thing: a menacing white owl watching them from their bedroom windows. The montage, a time-saving measure, actually deprives us of Abigail's "learning curve." It's the wrong technique for the sequence because we should gradually learn that all of her insomniac clients have experienced an identical terror -- the presence of the owl (actually a mnemonic avatar for the extra-terrestrials). And we should see this unnerving truth dawn on Abigail slowly too. Instead, by cutting between three separate hypnosis sessions at lightning speed, there's no sense of learning, no graduation of suspense, no escalation of terror. It's one of the few scenes in the movie that absolutely doesn't work.

Yet what does work, remarkably well, actually, is Osunsanmi's "documentary"-style footage, which -- at about the forty-five minute point -- kicks off into absolute horror when two patients, named Tommy (Corey Johnson) and Scott (Enzo Cilenti) are regressed to the time of their alien abductions. These actors (and the ones in the side-by-side "documentary scenes", featured in split-screen) do an absolutely amazing job of expressing and countenancing terror, using only their body movements as vehicle for expression. You actually think they are experiencing alien-generated seizures or spasms.

And then, later, we see archival footage of Scott actually being "possessed" by an alien and the static-ridden, rolling video footage provides a psychic jolt. Against your better judgment, you feel frightened (or at least unnerved), and in part it is because of Osunsanmi's conceit of pitting the documentary-style faked stuff against the Hollywood-style faked stuff. I also especiallyadmired the way that the film attempted to bring in the Chariot of the Gods aspect of the form, by explicitly referencing Sumerian cuneiform and artwork. Again, some people may claim that this subplot is a real stretch in believability (that ancient astronauts or aliens formed our race's perception of "God"), but the movie is working in a specific genre and therefore must abide by the rules of that genre.

By and large, critics absolutely hated The Fourth Kind. It has something like an 18% positive review rate on Rotten Tomatoes. I submit there are two important reasons for this, and they have nothing to with the technical skill or entertainment value of The Fourth Kind.

The first is that many modern journalists/critics may not be familiar with the style and history of the UFO pseudo-documentaries of the 1970s, and thus don't understand the genre the film is deliberately and delicately aping. They have no idea that this is an updating of a historica moviel form. Therefore, they have no way to put The Fourth Kind into any kind of meaningful context for their readers.

And secondly -- by and large -- critics really, really don't like to be tricked or outstmarted by movies. They don't want to admit, essentially, that a movie has gotten one over on them (which is why they all watch M. Night Shyalaman movies obsessed with picking apart a so-called trick ending...whether there is one or not) .

Therefore, it is easier to belittle or dismiss that which they don't "get." For example, many critics found the "dramatizations" of The Fourth Kind to be cumbersome, the Hollywood scenes over-designed (Abigail's "log-cabin Arts & Crafts office looks like it was surely subleased from a (Bulgarian) millionaire" wrote Roger Ebert in his review, for example). Yet this is the crux of the issue; it's the point of the movie. It's a leitmotif. The Fourth Kind encourages our eyes to note the unrealistic, romantic affluence of Abigail's surrounds (typical of Hollywood movies since at least the 1990s...), and then note, by side-by-side comparison, the relative naturalism of the archival, supposedly-documentary footage. In that distance between staged, A-movie re-enactment and "direct cinema"-style documentary footage, the movie pushes us to believe the veracity of the latter over the former. The point is to scare us silly and, again, as a horror film, The Fourth Kind is supremely effective on that front.

Ironically, all the same critics who disliked The Fourth Kind fell all over themselves loving Paranormal Activity, and sure, that film was easy to get...obvious even (especially by comparison). For me, that's what killed my enjoyment of Paranormal Activity. The camera there captured "supernatural" events absolutely perfectly; a feat which no one in real life has managed to do in a hundred years of photography and cinema. But this Micah chap accomplished it effortlessly. A ouija board explodes into fire on cue, perfectly framed in the middle of one composition. To me, that's just tipping the filmmaker's hand. It lacks not just subtlety and skill, but artistry.

The Fourth Kind is never that obvious; and you watch as some sort of technical (alien?) "interference" scuttles our attempts to witness alien saucers, and alien possession. We make out enough to be horrified, and to get a general visual impression of what is occurring. But critically, we're never spoon fed CGI-close-ups of demons, for instance, in The Fourth Kind. We are asked, instead -- again in cheesy pseudo-documentary format -- to consider simply what we have seen, and what we believe. And yes, it is a little cheesy, but once again: that's the nature of the form. It is part and parcel of the pseudo-documentary paradigm. We don't have hard proof of UFO alien abductions, so what we're left with is earnest "believers" like Milla Jovovich, (or in the earlier instances, Rod Serling, Jose Ferrer or Burgess Meredith...) building a spine-tingling but sensational case for us.

The Fourth Kind involves some splendid trickery and it is a good, effective horror movie. It won't make you believe in alien abductions or UFOs, but it will scare you. It certainly scared me. The exciting thing is the fashion in which it visually generates its overaching mood of terror. Here, something as simple as an audio-tape recording that starts normally and drifts off suddenly into nightmare territory is more than enough; thanks especially to the way the director laboriously sets-up and rigorously maintains his real/fake dynamic. He is aiming at something deeper too (and we see that in the explicit comparison of the aliens to "God"): we deeply fear being powerless in our own lives. The Fourth Kind gets at that idea; how our sense of purpose, superiority and direction is undercut if there are indeed "higher beings" acting upon us with impunity and without mercy. Our human connections (to our children, for example), mean nothing if we're just laboratory rats.

Is The Fourth Kind's all-out attempt to subvert our "truth radar" just some intellectual game? Perhaps so, but in vetting this particular game, the director of The Fourth Kind has successfull updated a genre (the UFO pseudo-documentary) and breathed new life into the currently in-vogue mockumentary horror film. This film just reinforces my belief that 2009 has been the best year for horror in a long, long time. The year brought us Trick'r'Treat, Drag Me to Hell, Pandorum, Zombieland, Halloween II, Paranormal Activity, Antichrist and The Fourth Kind. Even the "failures" on that list are ambitious, original, and endlessly fascinating. And -- taken on its own terms, and in the right context -- The Fourth Kind is no failure.

12 comments:

  1. Your third paragraph mentioning the heyday of UFO productions got me thinking about a TV series that I had completely forgotten about. Since I believe we are the same age (or thereabouts) you must have seen it too. It was called "Project UFO" or maybe "Project Blueblook" and ran during 1978.

    I searched your blog and was surprised not to find any mention of this show. Maybe I missed it. Anyway, it seems like something you may have been into.

    -Nick

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  2. Hey Nick,

    Yes - I was completely into Project UFO as a kid in the late-1970s! I need to get my hands on some episodes for a cult-tv flashback, but there's no DVD release yet.

    Maybe bootlegs!

    best,
    JKM

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  3. Ha, I'm glad someone else was on the same wavelength as me regarding Project UFO... I was thinking the exact same thing while reading your list of 70's UFO shows. My favorite episode of the series was called "The Joshua Flats Incident". It was available a while back on Youtube, but it's gone now and that user's account has been suspended. :(

    - Adam

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  4. Stellar review. I would very much agree that 2009 was a great year for horror. I'm glad to see your appreciation for Zombie's H2, which I thought was the best HALLOWEEN film since SEASON OF THE WITCH. Some others of serious note for me were THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, THE CHILDREN, SURVEILLANCE, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, and SORORITY ROW (I may be the only one here). PONTYPOOL was interesting, but I think I'll have to see it again. There was so much inspiring horror, in fact, that I'm no longer fretting these remakes and just happy that my beloved genre is so damn healthy.

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  5. Indiephantom:

    I'm so glad you mentioned Last House on the Left and spurred my memory -- I thought the remake was brilliant, and it should indeed be on the list in the review.

    Halloween 2 was the mad product of a mad mind. Not exactly how I prefer my Halloween movies, but an inspired, uncompromising, personal vision, in my opinion.

    House of the Devil is in my queue!

    Thanks,
    John

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  6. Jake Lockley12:48 PM

    I was surprised you didn't mention Communion. I was thinking that a remake of the Communion movie as a pseudo-documentary would make a lot sense these days, and that The Fourth Kind wanted to be what Communion (the book) was. The Communion movie was good for a few scenes, but the book(s) were really creepy, especially if you read them at home alone. I still can't shake the idea of waking up and seeing a Grey peeking out from behind the dresser or peering over the end of the bed.

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  7. Hey Jake,

    I had to stop reading the Communion books because they freaked me out and were making me paranoid. Seriously. Those books are terrifying. I would read them before bed and I couldn't go to sleep.

    The movie version of Communion was good, but not great. It does feature that amazing shot that you recall: the alien nosing his way into view, in a bedroom, in the thick of night. That's a resonant image, absolutely. The first time I saw it, that image jolted me out of my seat.

    I agree with you that The Fourth Kind was in that spirit, and I really found it pretty damn scary too. I don't understand why so many people disparage the movie, except that these days UFO stuff is considered disrespectable by the mainstream. My appreciation for it is simply on the basis that I found it smart, scary and effective.

    best,
    JKM

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  8. I really enjoyed Communion with Christopher Walken. At the time I pretty much enjoyed anything with him in it, but then he went off the rails.

    I'm really pleased to read your review John. I have this on my watch list, right along with Milla in A Perfect Getaway, but was cautious.

    Not unlike Getaway, the critics were not kind to he Fourth Kind and it looked impressive enough that I wanted to see it. Now, I'm a little more at ease going in. I'm glad you checked it out.

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  9. Hey Sci-Fi Fanatic,

    If you enjoyed Communion, I have a sense that you will enjoy The Fourth Kind too. Now you can do a Milla double feature (Perfect Getaway and The Fourth Kind), and if nothing else, the two films certainly reveal her range as an actress!

    best,
    JKM

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  10. Thanks for interacting with this film, John. I'd add a few additional thoughts.

    First, I wouldn't be too quick to dismiss the 1970s UFO pseudo-documentaries, or with the talents who hosted them. We need to keep in mind that these aspects of pop culture came within the context of a high interest in the paranormal on the heels of the late 1960s. I consumed a steady diet of them myself, along with other elements like In Search of... hosted by Leonard Nimoy. With the re-enchantment of Western culture in response to secularization there is still a high interest in such things, and now they are much more mainstream.

    In addition, I think there is another missing aspect of the background of this film that needs to be considered and that is the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. This is a phenomenon where an individual is between sleep and full wakefulness, and with it comes the feeling that some presence is pressing on the chest and watching the individual. Researchers have noted similarities in this experience with alien abduction reports. Given the nature of the recreations of alleged abductee experiences in The Fourth Kind it is evident that either the director or screenplay writer or both were drawing upon their own experiences with sleep paralysis or reports of them in addition to UFO abduction stories. I have probed this phenomenon in a series of posts on my blog, and Paul Meehan who wrote a review of this film for my blog will be touching on sleep paralysis and UFO abductions in an article in the near future.

    Thanks again for touching on this film.

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  11. Hey John,

    Some great points there, I think, and ones in support of the film, overall.

    I am deeply conflicted about UFO-logy myself, and so I kept my comments mostly directed to the film's effectiveness as horror, and in, contextually, recalling the pseudodocumentaries of the 1970s.

    I must confess, I didn't think in terms of the sleep paralysis phenomenon, but it's another interesting angle...

    And by-the-by: all reader should check out John Morehead's blog, which, simply stated, is one of the finest on the 'net.

    best,
    JKM

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  12. JKM, thanks for the recommendation of my blog. I really appreciate yours and your writing as well. In fact, I'm envious of your ability to write on these topics for a living. If only I could do the same, but I fear there isn't as profitable a niche for deeper analysis of the fantastic.

    Best,

    John

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