Shoulda Brought Your Multipass, Leeloo
If you start the film with the lead actress standing in front of the camera in a misty forest, introducing herself and then warning that the following film contains actual video and audio footage that "is disturbing," you better be laying out a great "found footage" horror film or the mother of all gonzo porn. The Fourth Kind is neither.
The film tries to be two things: a "found footage" horror film, and a psychological thriller playing on the fear of no one believing you. The problem is that these two concepts are fundamentally at odds with each other. In order for no one to believe you there cannot be any convincing evidence. "Found footage" is by definition convincing evidence. So either the film has to have shitty found footage or unreasonable characters. This film manages to have both. Yahtzee!
"Found footage" films like The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity can stretch you into a taut and vibrating string of nerves if done right because they do two things. First, they set themselves in surroundings so banal that when you leave the theater, you constantly feel a need to look over your shoulder, check in the closet that night, investigate every little noise. The second thing that they do is to never ever ever break with the fiction that what you are seeing is absolutely genuine footage. The success of "found footage" depends psychologically on the audience getting drawn in and feeling as if what they are seeing is real, regardless of whether they actually are gullible enough to believe so. The instant there's a break in that feeling, the boundary goes back up between audience and movie and the effectiveness of the spell dissipates.
The Fourth Kind takes a hybrid approach by combining what they claim to be real footage and audio recordings with "reenactments" by actual actors. It's the same sort of thing they do on the History channel, except with real actors and fake evidence instead of bad actors and real evidence. It just doesn't work, because the jerking back and forth constantly breaks the suspension of disbelief. The "real" footage is vaguely creepy at times, as is the "reenactment" footage, but the flipping (often within the same scene) just makes you constantly aware that you are watching a movie instead of drawing you into the atmosphere of the film. This is further compounded by the constant use of flashbacks and the wrapping of the overall narrative within an interview. By the end of the film, it unintentionally echoed The Usual Suspects in that you had a feeling that nothing that had been shown actually happened. They really should have taken one route and gone with it. "Found footage" or traditional narrative could have told this story, but combining the two was to the detriment of both.
The shame is that there's an interesting story of paranoia buried in there. The film is called "The Fourth Kind," which means that anyone who's ever watched a movie says to themselves "you mean like a close encounter?" The cat's out of the bag from the title of the movie what we're dealing with, so the big reveal shouldn't just be your run of the mill Gray with an anal probe. To their credit, it's not. And also to their credit, they never show the shark. The film manages a mishmash of possession, Sumerian, UFOs, abduction, freaky-ass owls, hypnosis, and the Cthulu-esque idea of being driven insane just by remembering the unspeakable horror you witnessed while asleep.
There's a place in sci-fi horror for an updating of Lovecraft for the alien abduction mythos, but this film simply doesn't succeed at establishing enough of a tension. The best way to describe it is that it tells a very dark and nihilistic story, but looking back on it, it never really felt particularly dark while watching it. The writing just wasn't up to the task of taking this film to the next level, every conversation feeling just like it was setting up the pieces in order to be knocked down. The film never takes its time to establish mood and tension, instead bursting right into big weird stuff happening with firm evidence appearing almost immediately with little or no effort.
A constant sense that you could do something smarter or better than the characters is never a good sign and it pervades the film. Without getting into scene by scene nitpicks let's just toss out the giant obvious one: if I recover repressed memories that aliens are kidnapping and sodomizing my family every night, then I for one am sleeping in a hotel that night, if I ever sleep again.
Meh. I'm going to go dig out some old "X-Files" episodes.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.
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