Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Olatunde Osunsanmi's The Fourth Kind (2009)

Olatunde Osunsanmi's The Fourth Kind (2009) is an account of Dr. Abigail Tyler (Milla Jovovich), a therapist in Gnome, Alaska, who claims to have had personal alien encounters and also chronicles, through her therapy sessions with hypnosis, her patients' encounters with aliens. As to whether The Fourth Kind is a genuine story and its facts are true, I will not be addressing this issue as I deem it irrelevant and non-essential for purposes of this review. The film has a very interesting presentation and visual style; beyond that, The Fourth Kind falters.
Director Olatunde Osunsanmi mixes on-screen interview footage with a person named Dr. Abigail Tyler and himself, footage of video and audio alleged to have been recorded by this doctor and others, and filmed re-enactments of the proceedings with Jovovich as Tyler. Jovovich opens the film as herself (and introduces herself to the audience) and gives a warning that some of the scenes in the film "some may find 'disturbing.'" During the filmed reenactments (aka the plot) when an actor appears for the first time, his/her real name appears in text on screen accompanied by the character he/she is portraying. Within The Fourth Kind, during the reenactments with Jovovich and company, when audio or video footage is being displayed, often Osunsanmi will put a subtitle on the screen below reading "actual" audio or video from original events.

This is an extremely intriguing way to make a film. Unfortunately, the story and the characters do not match The Fourth Kind's execution. Mixing alleged true footage with contrived and composed filmed proceedings, often simultaneously, takes the concept of film "blurring reality" to a literal level. Osunsanmi's most clever use comes with the split-screen: for example, one side of the screen will show Jovovich during a therapy session while on the other side of the screen will be the alleged footage shot by Tyler of a patient during a hypnosis session. Osunsanmi will match the audio between the original speaker and his actor while the visual depictions vary. Juxtaposing the two is trippy (and potentially creepy). In another scene, when Dr. Tyler has to make a late-night visit to a patient's house (after being summoned there by the police in a hostage situation), Osunsanmi fills the screen with four angles, mixing the contrived filmed reenacted footage with footage from original events (captured from within police vehicles). It's disorienting to watch the contrived footage, with its film lights and dramatic music, for example, alongside the the poor quality video footage from original events. Visually, it's a slick style, but since both types of footage often match (as if the viewer is judging how faithful the reenacted filmed footage is to the "actual" footage), there is little for the viewer beyond its visual appeal. Some variance would have been welcomed. (Marc Webb's (500) Days of Summer (2009) uses split-screen to excellent effect in his film where in a scene the lead character, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, attends a party. One side of the screen shows the series of events that Levitt's character wishes to have happen and the other side portrays the events which actually happen in the course of the story. Having those two scenes clash gave a much greater depth to the film, the characters, and the drama.)
To his credit, Osunsanmi's use of audio in The Fourth Kind is pretty spooky, especially during the actual footage and hearing the disembodied voices (presumably from aliens). Often though, when a supposed alien encounter is occurring on screen and shown by "actual" footage, the video distorts (with the overwhelming majority of the video not discernible). The audio also distorts. However, the overwhelming majority of it is discernible (and usually "translated" and subtitled on screen). Whatever is the cause for the interference with the video and audio, the viewer can speculate. The effect of the distorted video really gips the viewer, though. The reenacted, filmed proceedings are not any different from any other mediocre scare flick (jump scares with quick character action and accompanying piercing audio cue).

Substantively, The Fourth Kind does not hold up beyond its visuals, because the film is plot-driven by a character with little dramatic interest. Tyler is a truly sad character: as the film opens, the viewer learns within the last two months, her husband died. Her very young daughter has become permanently disabled also. Tyler is receiving her own treatment from Dr. Abel Campos (Elias Koteas) to cope with her emotional problems. Only a truly cold-hearted person could not feel for her character. Dr. Tyler persists, however, with her own patient sessions and continues to uncover the possibility that Gnome may be a hot bed for alien activity. Why? Tyler tells Campos, who suggests that she take a "sabbatical," that she must continue--to complete the work her husband had started before he had died (and presumably to keep her mind preoccupied). However, this motivation feels hollow for the viewer, and Jovovich might as well have told Koteas's Campos: "I have to continue work so an investigation and a plot plays out for a movie." One of the unfortunate things about Tyler is that she is almost all alone in her beliefs and her plight. When Osunsanmi attempts to show the effect that this solitude and its emotion has upon Jovovich's character, there are some tender scenes, with Jovovich crying alone or with Tyler and her daughter. Often, though, her strong feelings are not felt by the viewer. The absence of an intimate relationship (not just with Jovovich's character but really with any characters) hurts the drama within The Fourth Kind. Perhaps intentionally, the viewer is always outside and looking in.
Milla Jovovich is a gorgeous woman and an actor whom I've always admired (and also her music). She has given excellent performances in underrated films, like The Messenger (1999) and The Claim (2000); given excellent performances in guilty pleasures, like Resident Evil (2002) and Ultraviolet (2006; I will never forget the scenes of her subduing her foes by pulling out their hair extensions); and given very good performances in mediocre to awful films, like A Perfect Getaway (2009). In other words, I could pretty much watch her in anything. The Fourth Kind is unlikely, however, to get a revisit from me in the future, despite the fact that her performance is well above average. Olatunde Osunnsanmi deserves credit for his creative rendition of his story, and I hope for his next feature that his creativity carries over. Hampered by a weak script, The Fourth Kind falls into the forgettable zone.

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