Saturday, November 7, 2009
ETs Own Nome
Film Review - THE FOURTH KIND (2009)
Story by Olatunde Osunsenmi and Terry Robbins
Screenplay by Olatunde Osunsanmi
Directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi
If earnestness equaled entertainment, then the makers of The Fourth Kind (so named for the most extreme level of alien encounter - abduction) would have a rip-snorter on their hands. This story of alien abductions among the citizenry of Nome, Alaska during 2000 is told with a solemnity that borders on self-righteousness, and is intercut with purportedly "real" footage of the individuals and incidents involved. The attention spent on making this story appear "based on actual events" is considerable, making those errors that cause it to collapse upon itself all the more regrettable.
From the hazy miasma of the coniferous North, striding to the camera a la The Ghost Whisperer, emerges actress Milla Jovovich to tell us that what we are about to see is real and often disturbing (but in a PG-13 sort of way, I'm guessing), and that she will be assaying the role of the central figure in the story, psychologist Abigail Tyler. We soon cut to an interview conducted by director Osunsanmi with the "real" Tyler - pale, gaunt, her skull clearly visible beneath the skin. Her testimony, woven throughout the film, is the most arresting element in the movie, delivered with a quiet resignation bordering on fatalism, and...well, I'm going to talk more about her in just a bit.
As we open upon the "reel" world, Jovovich is preparing to return to her practice in Nome two months after the death of her husband; he was stabbed in the chest by an unknown assailant as the two of them slept in their bed. (Say it with me - Whoa.) That trauma induced hysterical blindness in their little girl, and a resentful attitude in their young son. And then there's Nome; isolated from the rest of Alaska, accessible only by airplane, and, as the movie begins, overcast and frequently raining. To say that we are starting off bleak doesn't begin to really capture it.
Tyler takes up her husband's patients, the most noteworthy being a handful who claim to be repeatedly experiencing a form of night terrors. They say they're being visited by a figure resembling a white owl, always at 3:33 AM, and remember little more than that. When Tyler places them under hypnosis, they come closer to the horror and are driven hysterical in the re-living, yet the totality of it remains just out of reach. Unfortunately, now that the terror has been dredged from the subconscious mind, it caroms around inside and does catastrophic damage to them and those they love. And from the chilling evidence of Tyler's own dictation, we learn that she is one of those similarly visited and afflicted.
Once again, we are presented with this storyline in a "real" vs. "reel" patchwork, complete with spilt-screens (with a dividing line that subtly shifts, probably because it looked more interesting, but it became annoying to me), audio over-dubs and even the oscillating patterns of soundwaves. At one point, during a dramatic hostage situation, the image cells are literally pinwheeling around each other like a ferris wheel. It is in that sequence that Osunsanmi slips up and overplays his hand. We see an act of violence presented, at its most graphic moment, in "real" footage. Now, had that footage been allowed to be exploited for the purpose of a Hollywood feature...well, let's just say that, as I type this, the pink slips would be raining down upon Universal Corporate before the Friday night box office estimates rolled in. It is in that misstep that all suspension of disbelief vanishes, never to return. We are left with a dour downer of an alien abduction picture, one that jerks us around by fuzzing out "real" footage at the most inopportune of moments. Once the illusion is shattered, the filmmakers' attempts at maintaining it move from annoying to infuriating to pathetic.
What scares there are consist of the Character-Bolts-Up-Aright kind, punctuated by a sting on the soundtrack, or, as they are known by their colloquial name, "cheap." The aliens remain disappointingly off-stage, and it's a slog to the cruelty of the climax. The performers are uniformly somber to the point of inhumanity (surely someone in this situation could offer a light-hearted observation? in the face of what most would consider the absurdity of alien abduction?), with the exception of Will Patton as Sheriff August. Patton has created a career on the basis of two qualities; Smug Asshole or Shouty Authority Figure. The former rears its ugly head in his second line of dialogue, but is quickly replaced by the latter. It's not an improvement. (Admission - I have spent the better part of two decades pointing out Patton's considerable shortcomings as an actor, and he's given me no reason to stop yet.)
There is one performer to whom attention must be paid, and that is the actress who plays the "real" Abigail Tyler. What soul there is to The Fourth Kind belongs to her and her alone. Of course, to maintain the illusion of reality, she is not identified in the closing credits by any other name. However, there are sources on the Interweb that are saying she is French American actress Aurelia Banchilon, who was also the motion capture performer for the lead character in the 2010 game release Heavy Rain. (While I wouldn't bet the farm on it, there was something about her demeanor that hinted of CGI involvement to make her appear more emaciated.) Whoever the performer is, they deserve the proper accolades. The Fourth Kind is an exercise in artifice masquerading as Truth, but her performance is the only honesty I took with me out of the theater.
Postscript - This got me thinking about one of the best - and first - alien abduction movies I ever saw: The UFO Incident, a 1975 made-for-TV movie with the magnificent pairing of James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons. Nothing I've seen in such films compares to the sight of that majestic grizzly of an actor reduced to a blubbering child by his extraterrestrial captors. It's not available on DVD; now that's depressing.