Alien abduction flick The Fourth Kind bills itself as containing "actual footage" from case histories. But this footage is so poorly faked that it insults the audience's intelligence. So why are people still calling this movie scary? Spoilers ahead.
The movie has an incredibly terrifying premise. Hundreds of people have gone missing from the tiny, isolated town of Nome, Alaska since the 1960s. These missing persons cases have never been solved. But then a psychiatrist named Abigail Tyler starts investigating a rash of sleep disorders in Nome, and discovers that her patients are all having the same visions of white owls who interrupt their dreams. And when she hypnotizes one of her patients to find out more about this "owl," he is reduced to abject terror and then flees her office to kill his family and himself. Another patient, when hypnotized, starts screaming in ancient Sumerian and starts levitating.
Eventually Tyler realizes the people of Nome are being abducted by aliens, and she has been too. Set her discoveries against the tragic backdrop of her husband's recent, violent death (by aliens?) beside her in bed, and you've got a mega-spooky idea. Plus, there is actual documentary footage from the "real life" Tyler's sessions with these patients. And she even manages to record herself being abducted by aliens who scream at her in Sumerian.
Having grown up utterly terrified by the alien abduction scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I understand why The Fourth Kind sounds scary. Plus it promised to be a pseudo-documentary, showing us never-before-seen footage of people who have evidence that they've been stolen from their beds at night by hostile aliens. Sealing the deal was a star turn by Milla Jovovich, who makes every action movie more awesome.
But the movie stumbled out of the gate by hanging most of its fear power on a fundamental dishonesty. There is no "archival footage." There are no "actual case studies." Instead, we get badly-acted, blatantly fake documentary footage which fuzzes out whenever anything alien happens. There is some interesting editing, where filmmaker Olatunde Osunsanmi shows the fake footage split-screened alongside a reenactment of the fake footage and you feel like you're either watching 24 or some kind of weird art-school critique of documentary realism. Unfortunately the ashen fake/real Tyler is such a bad actress, and her CGI-widened eyes so "alien," that you wind up with the sense that Osunsanmi and crew thought audiences for this movie would be so monumentally stupid that they would fall for anything.
I'm not against fake documentaries. I loved Paranormal Activity, which was effective because the actors seemed so effortlessly real. Nothing felt stagey or artificial about that movie's "documentary" evidence.
What pushes Fourth Kind from the merely bad into the actually insulting was the filmmakers' insistence that the documentary evidence was real. Actors from the "documentary" portions of the movie are uncredited, and many media outlets are still reporting that the footage is real. There was even an ill-fated Web campaign to create false professional credentials and publications for Abigail Tyler, but after investigative reporter Kyle Hopkins revealed them as fakes they were taken down. Here's what Hopkins wrote:
Try Googling "Abigail Tyler" and "Alaska." You'll get a link to a convincingly boring Web site called the "Alaska Psychiatry Journal" - complete with a biography of a psychologist by that name who researched sleep behavior in Nome. Except the site is suspiciously vacant, mostly a collection of articles on sleep studies with no home page or contact information.
Another site, www.alaskanewsarchive.com, features a story from the Nome Nugget about Tyler moving to Nome for research. The problem? The story is credited to Nugget editor and publisher Nancy McGuire, who says it's baloney and she never wrote it.Both the news site and the medical journal site were created just last month, according to domain-name research sites. Ron Adler is CEO and director of the Alaska Psychiatric Institute. Denise Dillard is president of the Alaska Psychological Association. They said this week they've never heard of the Alaska Psychiatry Journal, or of Abigail Tyler.
So basically the movie's fakery was so badly done that people involved with the movie didn't even bother to create a convincing "Abigail Tyler" website that they could maintain once the movie came out.
What I'm saying is that Fourth Kind reeks of laziness. Despite having a great concept, it fails at every turn to make that concept convincing or menacing. And this lackluster mood permeates all aspects of the film - not just the poorly-executed hoax gimmick at its heart.
There are three competing, poorly-integrated stories vying for your attention in this movie.
First, there's the alien abduction story, and the mystery around what the aliens are doing, which is never solved. All we know is that the aliens are scary, and that they steal people out of their beds. We never understand why anybody would want to be hypnotized by Tyler and Co. after the first few people she hypnotizes kill themselves or get their backs broken when aliens possess them and distort their bodies. Even though Tyler has two credible witnesses to every single hypnosis session, including one that involves alien possession and levitation, those credible witnesses mysteriously never corroborate her story. So we see her screaming and crying when police arrive to arrest her for breaking her patient's back, and neither of her credible friends comes forward to say, "Actually I was there, I am a licensed whatever, and this guy broke his own back while having some kind of alien-induced seizure."
Second, there is the mystery of how Tyler's husband died. She remembers him being murdered by an intruder, and for most of the movie her psychiatrist friend is trying to hypnotize her so she can remember the intruder's face. But then it turns out that actually her husband shot himself, and she hallucinated the murder. And everybody, including her friend, knew this all along. But nobody tried to tell her. So we've got this hallucinating, crazed lady who is being allowed to hypnotize people? And who still has custody of her kids, even though her son is clearly scared of her? By the time the aliens "abduct" her daughter during a fuzzed-out documentary moment, you are ready for her to be arrested and put in a psychiatric hospital.
Finally, there's a whole "chariot of the gods" idea that's sort of flung into the story as if we weren't already up to our eyeballs in disbelief we couldn't suspend even if we wanted to. The aliens speak in ancient Sumerian, which a professor is inexplicably able to understand, despite the fact that the only access to Sumerian he has are from ancient texts. Nobody knows how the language would have been pronounced. Still, he figures out that the aliens are yelling things like "I am god," and using the word "destroyed" a lot. We also don't understand why they're still speaking an ancient language - you'd think by now they would try speaking English since they've been abducting Alaskans since before Sarah Palin was born.
So we're left with an absolute mess of crappily-done documentary footage, inexplicable aliens who act more like demons than scifi creatures, and a main character (Tyler) who seems like a complete crazy lady. Milla Jovovich still manages to shine, though it's hard when she has lines like, "My baby! They stole my baby!"
By the end of The Fourth Kind, you'll feel swindled - and not in the happy, they-fooled-me way. I can only assume that people who were scared by this movie, or even vaguely intrigued by it, were responding more to the movie's concept rather than its execution. There were a lot of ways Osunsanmi could have taken this movie to salvage it. He could have focused on making the documentary hoax convincing by creating believable footage and a smarter online presence. Or he could have pushed the movie over into the realm of Weekly World News camp, winking at the audience while also delivering some chills. Instead, he wrote and directed a movie whose earnestness is laughable - and whose "reality" segments feel more staged than Jon and Kate Plus Eight.
For further reading: Fourth Kind Insider Confirms: Yes It Was Fake