By Todd Gilchrist (reprint from 10/28/09 -- L.A. Screamfest)
I'm not sure exactly what quality it is that real people possess and actors lack, but any time a film pretends to document real behavior, either literally or as a reenactment, something is almost always missing. Sometimes the problem is a deliberate decision to enhance events with artificial emphasis or drama, and sometimes it's simply too great a sense of self-awareness in the actor, who knows he or she is performing. But while there are a precious few movies that nail that authenticity, notably the recent underdog-blockbuster Paranormal Activity, such is certainly the case in The Fourth Kind, a film that purports to build an argument for alien abductions using "actual" footage from case studies.
While much of the movie's so-called source material carries the convincing roughness and deficiencies of homemade, handheld recording, too much of it seems far too calculated, both in its technical proficiency and the performances contributed by its "real" people. Further, its accompanying reenactments by recognizable actors undermine the possibility that audiences can take its case seriously, all of which adds up to thriller that unravels easily even if it nevertheless occasionally qualifies as a scary good time.
The film opens with a literal introduction by Milla Jovovich, who explains that the film is based on actual footage from real cases, some of which is used alongside the reenactment footage she participates in as Dr. Abigail Tyler. The "real" Tyler more or less provides a through-line for the story via an interview she agreed to with Olatunde Osunsanmi, who also happens to be the film's writer and director. As she describes the discovery of a shared vision of a smiling white owl among her patients, Jovovich provides context for Tyler's increased hysteria: after Tyler's husband dies under mysterious circumstances, she immerses herself in his work, a psychotherapy study which alienates her from her children, lands her in hot water with the authorities, and eventually endangers her life.
The main problem with the film may be that audiences are just plain too sophisticated to buy into its combination of actual and staged material; even if it's believable to release therapy sessions and private interviews, much less ones where strange and violent behavior occurred, there's just no way that the police would allow filmmakers to include actual shots of a man killing himself and his family. Meanwhile, the rest of the movie is so aggressively over-stylized that you get the impression even the filmmakers don't quite know what they're doing when they keep the camera constantly moving, flip, shift and juggle "actual" images with reenactment footage, and generally overplay the falseness of the acting footage as some extreme counterpoint to the real stuff.
It doesn't help that the performances are almost all over-modulated as well. Jovovich has never been an actress of spectacular depth – her best performance to date was as a gibberish-spouting hottie who saves the universe in The Fifth Element, and I mean that as a compliment – but unfortunately, she fails to generate much emotional substance in Tyler's descent into skepticism and madness. Meanwhile, Will Patton apparently decided that he was going to single-handedly act the sh*t out of every scene in which he appears, not only devouring scenery (and in one case, destroying it), but providing a character who, were he based on a real person, would certainly attract a lawsuit for the filmmakers. There is certainly a place in a film like this for an aggressive nonbeliever, the guy who when confronted with irrefutable or even ambiguous evidence, refuses to acknowledge the possibility of something "else," but when you're playing a cop there's still such a thing as procedure, and smashing up the house of a woman who claims her daughter has been kidnapped seems to violate that procedure. Egregiously.
That said, the "case study" footage is often eerily convincing, because those actors are far more naturalistic than their Hollywood counterparts; not to mention the fact that the 8mm-camcorder patina, along with some incredibly subtle but effective special effects, mostly buried beneath video noise, give those shots a credulity that the rest of the film doesn't share. But the deeper questions the movie conjures about extraterrestrial intelligence are meant to dissuade audiences from asking shallower ones, like, say, why aliens can apparently travel through ceilings, but still use doors, or the larger question why they would even bother with this one woman. There are simply too many unanswered questions to sustain a compelling emotional center for the story, even if its jump scares and effectively disturbing imagery occasionally rouse the audience into believing there's something more there than studio trickery.
Ultimately, however, the biggest obstacle that The Fourth Kind may face is the success of Paranormal Activity, for two reasons: first, the little thriller that could is still going strong at the box office, eviscerating even established horror franchises like Saw; and second, that film reminded audiences and critics alike how effective traditional horror conventions could be if executed effectively – which the ones here are often not. Truth be told, I admit I was myself optimistic about the its authenticity when I initially emerged from the theater, but a couple of conversations with smarter colleagues than I and the duration of a car ride home was all it took for the film to fall apart in my eyes. In which case, The Fourth Kind is itself a little bit like a UFO sighting: you're not quite sure what you saw when it was happening, and it was momentarily exciting to experience, but if you really think about it, it's pretty ridiculous, and especially disappointing in retrospect.