10.26.2009

The Fourth Kind (2009): Hollywood Tries Too Hard



Oh how I wanted this film to be the disturbing experience it promised to be, but I knew better.  It’s SPOILER FREE, so read on before you make your trip to the cinema in November.

As Screamfest’s closing night movie, The Fourth Kind screening I attended was full of excitable genre fans. People were amped up to see the movie—hoping that maybe, just maybe Universal could capture some of the same chills that Paranormal Activity has just unleashed. While it is not entirely a found footage film, it claims to have incorporated actual archived footage and audio of certain events. And they try a bit too hard to convince us this is real. How far do they take it?


Milla upon learning that she was abducted by the filmmakers and brainwashed into believing the film is based on real events.

You may have seen a trailer that features Milla Jovovich announcing herself as an actress portraying Dr. Abigail Tyler in the upcoming film, which presents content that is solely based on facts and evidence. This wasn’t a promotional bit created for trailers. Unfortunately, this is the first scene of the film. Really, guys, really? In fact, the whole approach to the film is one giant reenactment. It intercuts stylized cinematics with an interview between the film’s director, Olatunde Osunsanmi, and the “real” Dr. Tyler. It even goes as far as to show the reenactment and the “actual” footage at the same time, using a split screen technique. While The Fourth Kind’s documentary-found-footage-reenactment blend is unique and fresh, it is ultimately more distracting and haughty than anything else.


I believe in aliens, but I don't believe in you Milla.

This is truly a shame because The Fourth Kind had the potential to be just as scary as Paranormal. Firstly, alien abduction stories have always frightened me. I can see why the director was encouraged to mimic shows like Sightings. As a kid, I always found that show to be disturbing, especially when the reenactments were not overdone and when it focused on interviews with truly convincing people. However, the world of the narrative feature film is much different. The filmmakers didn’t want to make an episode of Sightings, didn’t want to rely on found footage like Blair Witch, and didn’t want to portray a seamless fictional world of alien abduction. So they combine all three. The mixed medium and mixed style approach really hurts the film, which admittedly does have some frightening moments. The archival footage is the highlight of the film. One scene made me jump more than I can remember from any other film. The use of “actual” audio and “actual” video are so scary that it makes the reenactments and the interview with Dr. Tyler seem unfulfilling. If the film had been entirely made of found footage and executed in the right way, it could have been amazing. It also had the same opportunity to astound me if it was filmed in a straight, classic cinematic approach but with a different methodology. What it really comes to down to is that the fourth wall is broken so much, it loses any suspension of disbelief and therefore, loses impact.


One of the most chilling performances in the film.

Technically, the film has a slick Hollywood feel. The cinematography is serviceable, but it lacks creative cohesion. Overexposed, white-flaring flashbacks are so old by now and do not suit the tone of the rest of the film, which is asking us to believe what we are seeing is real. With Milla Jovovich, Elias Koteas, Will Paton leading the cast, you expect to see some decent acting at the very least. Decent is probably the best way to describe their shallow, unpolished performances. They’re not bad, but they’re definitely not running on all cylinders. Rarely do I mention production design in a film, but it really was bothersome in this film. When looking at the archival footage and the reenactment, I couldn’t help but point out that both scenes were most likely shot in the exact same location (maybe just a different part of the room or with different set dressing). If you are trying to get people to believe that the footage is real, then don’t make it so painfully obvious that it is not. I’m not usually one to be nit-picky about these details (especially since it was probably a budgetary decision in part), but you can’t expect me not to compare the locations when you show the reenactment and archival footage back to back or side by side. Another hint about realism… If you’re filming a fact-based thriller that is situated in Nome, Alaska. Maybe you should film at least part of the movie there, even if it’s just an aerial shot or two. Don’t show images of a random Bulgarian city that looks nothing like Nome. It’s kind of like filming a sky-scraper-packed New York  city and claiming it’s Los Angeles.



Above: The film's portrayal of Nome; Below: The real Nome.
Photos and a great article courtesy of Rural Alaska blog: The Village.

All of these flaws do show the signs of an inexperienced director, as well as the oversight of studios that don’t care about the details. Part of me feels bad for saying this because Olatunde Osunsanmi went to the same film school as me at Chapman University. That also explains why the rather imposing title is shown so prominently in the trailer and throughout the film. I remember one of my good friends had worked on Osunsanmi’s first feature film, WithIN (The Cavern), and one of my professors was paid to do sound work on it during post-production. My desire to see a truly scary alien abduction film and my alma matter connection were giving this film the benefit of every doubt. It truly is a marketable, clever concept, but I’m afraid the execution and unevenness of storytelling prevented it from prevailing as a great horror film. Instead of being the unique take of the genre it should have been, it is a slicked out Hollywood concoction that patronizes its audience but is not completely without scary rewards.

9 comments:

  1. I agree. The found footage part had terrifying aspects if only they took them and ran with them, instead of over using the shitty unsolved mysteries reenactment stuff. Sigh. But hey what can you do its the guys first real big movie. I hope to see him grow, cause he can pull out the scares.
    Thats so funny about Nome.... during the movie I was like shit lets move to Alaska...
    One thing I think your wrong on is the acting. It was solid! The sheriff (the bad guy from Postman) was awesome and so was Mila. It was problem of direction for her most of the time. The found footage acting was nothing less than phenomenal, which you can't argue against! :D

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  2. Nick, you're right about the acting. I should have clarified. I think it was the way the performances were directed, not necessarily bad acting. The found footage stuff was great, as it had to be.

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  3. I didnt even know this film was coming out until a week ago. Though there were a few scenes in the trailer that piqued my interest, overall I was afraid of all of the things you mentioned above. It seems to me to be the antithesis of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, relying far to heavily on over the top activities that are going to take away from the believability as with most other big budget Hollywood films.

    Likelihood of me ever seeing this one: 47% if the wife netflixes it.

    Thanks for the heads up Becks, I almost wanted to see it, but you validated my disinterest.

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  4. If it doesn't spoil anything, could you explain why there was found footage and reenactment footage showing side by side? Trying to figure out why they would bother doing that.

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  5. Heather, It's simply a stylistic choice. The whole film isn't like that, only during certain points. If you watch one of the TV shows that are documenting supernatural events and interviewing people, it's kind of like that mixed with the visual look of 24.

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  6. So bummed to hear that it stunk, looks like it had potential.

    BTW, I think the whole thing has been made up. I Googled abductions and Nome and nothing came up a couple of weeks ago. In fact, I couldn't even find a mention of a Dr. Abigail Tyler. Clever marketing?

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  7. Planet of Terror, Yeah the whole thing is definitely made up. There is a large number of missing persons in Nome and the FBI has visited it many times, but there are reasons for this. Nome has an extremely high alcoholism rate (which is common in Alaska) and particularly tough natural conditions. Many isolated towns in Alaska are "dry" and do not sell alcohol, but Nome does. So many think that is a reason. The FBI also came to investigate because they were afraid of a serial killer cop or something, but that didn't turn out to be true either.

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  8. Hmm. Well, that's kinda disappointing. I was really wanting to believe the Hollywood hype machine that this was based on real events. Well, I guess it's still worth Netflixing.

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  9. I remember seeing the preview for this and just cracking up. I looked over at my brother and he was laughing, too. This movie just looks silly. Even though it is not a glowing review, I'll bet that you are being generous... Come on... it just completely sucks, doesn't it?

    JM

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