It's time for another personal critic's confession - I was duped by this film. Don't know what I'm talking about? Then please, don't read any further. Look at the scores to the side, read a few sentences of the tech specs, and gauge your interested on the overall rating. In order to discuss the alien abduction thriller The Fourth Kind, I have to divulge the film's main cinematic secret, a spoiler so large it may change how you approach the movie from this point forward. If you already know the "twist", then by all means, read on. If you don't, you've been more than warned. You see, when I saw this film at a theatrical screening prior to release, I bought it all: the storyline set-up, the found footage vs. recreation angle, the thought that what I was seeing was real, recreated for the sake of drama and scary movie suspense. When I learned that what I had experience was something akin to a meta-motion picture, a ruse within a ruse so to speak, I was gobsmacked. How could I, a seasoned film fan and reviewer, be duped so readily - and how fair was the "true story" marketing and manipulative approach taken by the studio? The answer was revealing, to say the least.
Nome, Alaska is supposedly notorious for having the most alien abductions per capita than any other city in the US. This lead psychologist Abigail Tyler to set up shop here, hoping to get some insight into the bizarre phenomenon. She is also looking for closure, as the recent death of her UFO researcher husband has her shook up and seeking answers. Over the course of her case history, she comes across "Tommy", a man whose purported obsession with "owls" and nightly visits leads to horrifically tragic events. Then there is "Scott" another patient whose sessions reveal some heretofore unknown otherworldly powers. As she digs deeper, she has her own incomplete memories to contend with. Then, without warning, her family is the focus of an attack from beyond our world. Who and what is interested in her and the other missing people stands as a major mystery of The Fourth Kind.
When is a film "based on true events" not? When is a movie so meta that it threatens to implode into a billion particles of misspent celluloid? Let' face it - a cheat is a cheat and that's that. Dress it up anyway you want, but when you con someone, you have to expect some blowback. Still, you've got to give credit to everyone involved in The Fourth Kind, from writer/director Olatunde Osunsanmi to the masterminds at Universal who went for an exploitation style pitch and convinced at least some percentage of the audience that what they were experiencing was "real". They set this entire experience up to be a weird amalgamation of found footage and split screen recreation, and as long as you're lulled into a sense of complacent complicity, everything's more than Jake. The scenes of hypnosis-induced alien interaction are creepy and disturbing, the authenticity startling in a way that makes you forget - temporarily - the viability of such visitation. Sure, UFOs probably exist, but would police video of a father going on a gun-wielding killing spree be hidden from the public for almost ten years, especially considering our nu-media YouTube mentality?
Once you've been duly frightened by The Fourth Kind, these are the questions that come up. The actors all do a decent job - head huckster Milla Jovovich is given the most arduous task of making Dr. Tyler a credible, reliable guide, and she does - and even those involved in the "recreations" have a nice nondescript quality to their work. Sure, you start to suspect something when the "real" Dr. Tyler shows up looking like a homeless person with a passion for dirty hair and hollow eyes, but we still buy the ruse. People levitate, strange shapes hover over houses, eerie voices are accidentally recorded, and like the most gullible of horror film fans, we buy the BS. It must say something for Osunsanmi's ability behind the lens that, unless pre-warned, we never once sense the fallacy behind this fact-based fiction. Every step of the way, from the marketing to the movie itself, we are being sold a certain bill of goods and unless we go beyond the obvious to really track down the truth, The Fourth Kind fools us - almost effortlessly.
Yet, the real question is - is it fair? Is it fair to offer a film which claims to be truth only to turn around post-screening and scream "Fraud!"? Should Universal play such a prank on the public? Well, as someone who sat, spellbound by the original experience, completely clueless about the entire bunkum backstory here, the answer is an uneasy "Yes". Even in this post-vetted state, The Fourth Kind is a fine thriller. It combines all the elements one needs to experience that most uncomfortable of motion emotions - dread. The hypnosis sequences build beautifully, sometimes offering an anticlimactic is still horrific payoff. The entire narrative also functions to terrify. As we get closer and closer to the truth about Dr. Tyler and the death of her husband, the movie gains momentum. Sure, we lose some if not all of the subtext when we learn it's not real, but that really doesn't diminish its overall power. Forty years ago, Mondo movie makers fooled millions of exploitation fans with their staged, stilted depiction of "reality". The Fourth Kind is really no different. It's the same kind of gyp, only more polished and professional...and potent
As with any major 2009 Hollywood production, The Fourth Kind looks very good on the digital medium. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image, with its washed out colors and Pacific Northwest backdrop, is excellent, providing a nice amount of mood and angst-drive atmosphere. Of course, the main sticking point for some will be the combination of film and "found" video material. Still, the recreation of both is excellent, a real reflection of how far the technology has come. We can now fake just about anything, from old grainy camcorder material to 3D planets far, far away.
The ambience here is creepshow crazy, and the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix does a magnificent job of keeping us off balance. The back channels produce some incredibly eerie elements, and the thriller moments are captured in all their multi-speaker menace. The dialogue is always discernible, while the musical score provides some significant shivers. Overall, the tech specs here are quite good - especially when you consider the desire to mimic certain low-fi facets of the story.
Sadly, where this DVD comes up short is in the bonus features department. What this critic was hoping for was a full blown feature length commentary with writer/director Osunsanmi spilling his guts about why he went about this material in a fact/fiction/fac-tion manner, the struggles with keeping the secret until after the movie's release, and the complexity of creating both the "truth" and his cinematic take on it. It would be incredibly insightful, especially when it comes to process and the production in general. Obviously, Universal wasn't interested in going public, so they've pulled back on the standard release. All we get are deleted scenes - interesting, but not necessary to the film itself.
This is a hard movie to fully advocate for many reasons. Some will find it silly and dismiss it outright. Otherwise will see the subject matter, the proposed execution of same, and smell a rat. Others will do the whole "hook, line, and sinker" thing and then feel stupid about it in the morning. And then there are those who will drink in the entire process, from set-up to staging to studio hard sell and marvel at how far moviemaking has come in the last 50 years. On the one side, the whole "fooled you" facet deserves a Skip It. On the other hand, it's so well done that a Highly Recommended would also work. Splitting the difference and admiring the approach, Recommended becomes the compromise. There is an inherent sleaziness about pulling the wool over an unsuspecting film fans eyes - even more so when you can do it to a seasoned cinema veteran like yours truly. For that alone, The Fourth Kind deserves kudos. For not being real, however, it also deserves criticism.