The Fourth Kind (2009)

The owls are not what they seem

The reality-show/scripted-drama hybrid about alien abductions that is The Fourth Kind (2009) turns your standard close-encounter scenario into a brush with the truly unknown.

The Fourth Kind (2009) opens on a blurred figure. It walks toward the camera; it might be an alien. Slender body. Narrow shoulders. Not much of a cranium. I think about the contact scene in another close-encounter movie, where a shape steps out of the blinding backlight and reveals itself to be an extraterrestrial entity. But the figure here resolves into a movie star who identifies herself as Milla Jovovich and explains to me what I’m about to see.

The Fourth Kind (2009)

She doesn’t seem all that into it, honestly. It’s like she’s discharging court-mandated public service. The compensatory hyperkinetic editing has her speaking over the ends of her own sentences.

She says that the movie is a factual record of a series of highly disturbing events that occurred in the city of Nome, Alaska, over roughly nine days in October 2000. Every dramatized scene is a painstaking reenactment corroborated by video and audio evidence or extensive first-hand testimony—much of which will appear in the film, side by side with the Hollywood production.

What I believe, she tells me, is mine to decide.

Only nothing that she just said is true, including her name, which is actually Milica. The events of the movie never happened anywhere except in director Olatunde Osunsanmi’s screenplay, and the archival material intercut throughout the feature is just as staged as the scripted stuff, but with less of a finish and less convincing performances.

I’m not saying that it’s a hoax. I’m saying that it’s intentionally fictitious in the tradition of The Blair Witch Project (1999), although they were probably going for Paranormal Activity (2007). So when a scene starts to roll and the split screen comes and we’re watching two different versions of the action play out, with the Hollywood cast emoting on one side and the corresponding dash cam or interview on the other, we’re getting what amounts to two different movies based on the same story and indeed the same script in a pair of multiplex-friendly formats. The one is a Milla Jovovich vehicle. The other is a found-footage horror film. Each movie knows that the other is fake, but they’re both pretending that they’re not. This is literally as meta as it can get.

Jovovich portrays Dr. Abigail Emily Tyler, a recently widowed clinical psychologist with a practice in the Nome area. The same role in the archival footage is played by “Dr. Abigail Emily Tyler,” otherwise known as Charlotte Milchard, whose official credit is for the role of Nome Resident, which she shares with four other people. The Jovovich version of Abigail Tyler resembles no one so much as the actor Liv Tyler, so I spent much of the movie forgetting that Milla was in it, which is entirely on me, because she’s mostly not bad. I admire her for her action-star cred, not necessarily for her command of the craft, but it’s nice to see her doing something in a horror movie besides putting the hurt on video-game mobs.

Dr. Abigail Emily Tyler (Milla Jovovich)
Dr. Abigail Emily Tyler (Milla Jovovich)
Hail to the Queen, Baby

All roles lead to Jamie Lee Curtis. Here’s a path from Milla Jovovich to the reigning scream queen.

Dr. Tyler, Abbey, is undergoing therapy of her own with her colleague in Anchorage, Dr. Abel Campos (Elias Koteas). She’s trying to piece together the details of the night that Will (Julian Vergov), her husband, died. She remembers him being murdered in bed—she was lying beside him when it happened—but she can’t make out the killer’s face. Abel, who looks like he’s been waiting for his chance to be something to Abbey besides her psychologist, puts her under hypnosis to speed things along. She comes out of it screaming. It’s not going well.

Dr. Abel Campos (Elias Koteas)
Dr. Abel Campos (Elias Koteas)

Her kids aren’t contenders for doing-great awards, either. Ashley (Mia McKenna-Bruce), the younger of them, is living through her trauma with a conversion disorder that has taken away her ability to see. So she’s spared the sullen looks of her brother Ronnie (Raphael Coleman) as he stews in his seat at the dinner table. He harbors a grudge against the surviving parent for reasons that you might not expect when the payoff comes in the third act.

As for her work, it’s getting weird. Many if not most if not all of her patients are suffering from unusual sleep disorders, and a few, like Tommy Fisher (Corey Johnson), seem precariously on edge. He and the others all report the same nocturnal visitor: an owl. An owl at the window. An owl in the house. It’s been appearing to them since childhood, they say. It stands over them at night, staring at them, for what seems to them like hours at a time. They can’t get rid of it or scare it off. Come the morning, their memory is hazy, but the little that they can recall of the experience makes them apprehensive in the extreme.

Occult knowledge The famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung put forward the theory of synchronicity to explain noncausal relationships. In the classic case, one of Jung’s patients—a committed materialist—was describing a dream about a piece of scarab jewelry when a rare and exotic scarabaeid beetle started tapping on the outside of the office window. The sheer unlikeliness of this to happen became a moment of breakthrough in the patient’s therapy. Jung came to believe that certain events that seem unrelated except by coincidence are actually meaningfully connected.

We never learn the theoretical basis of Dr. Tyler’s psychology practice, only that it can’t be Jungian psychology, or else because nobody’s seeing a beetle, she doubts that synchronicity applies. A Jungian wouldn’t care if the experience were real. They’d probably be happier if it weren’t. They’d zero in on the owl as a symbol and analyze its meaning in our collective unconscious. There’d be mention of Athena. Maybe The Once and Future King. And forget about hypnosis. Hypnosis is out. But since Abbey seems to show a preference for the sort of blasé, de rigueur materialism that isn’t interested to know what the owl might mean if there’s a chance to prove whether it exists, she decides to hypnotize Tommy anyway to the consternation of Jungians everywhere and attempt an end run around his memory barrier. This time it’s Tommy who comes out of it screaming, and with the knowledge that his visitor wasn’t an owl. What it was, he can’t see. Or he won’t say.

Tommy’s mental condition deteriorates, and soon Sheriff August (Will Patton) is neck-deep in paperwork. He’s a small-town cop with big-time problems, since the number of missing persons in Nome is way higher per capita than it is in Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska. The Feds are breathing down his neck. He may not know what’s behind the disappearances, but he’s certain that he doesn’t have time for Abbey and all her book learning and uppity talk and hypno psycho mumbo jumbo, and she’s not even a Jungian, so that’s some serious hostility. It’s his considered and often expressed opinion that she shouldn’t be poking around anyone’s head. She gets in there with her monkey wrench and doesn’t stop going until a body’s on a slab.

Sheriff August (Will Patton)
Sheriff August (Will Patton)

But she does keep poking, and the story gets weirder. Another of her patients, Scott (Enzo Cilenti), recalls a “them,” unnamed and unidentified. It speaks with telepathic voices and takes him away to somewhere for something, none of which he can remember precisely. All he can see in his mind is the owl. He’s not okay with any of this. And Abbey herself begins to bring the weird home. She falls asleep while dictating her notes and ends up recording some kind of bedlam, with somebody shrieking, presumably her, and a distorted voice barking in an unknown language. She has marks on her back. There are scratches on the floor. She says the A word. Not alien. Abduction.

She’s convinced that there’s something to this owl business, maybe even something that has to do with Will’s death. (That’s not what the owl is a symbol of, which she’d know if she were in a better place with Jung.) Will had been part of a government study to get to the bottom of the disappearances in Nome. He’d collected reports of horrific night terrors similar to those of Abbey’s patients (but no mention of an owl; Jung could tell you why). But also, for some inexplicable reason, he’d been consulting with Dr. Awolowa Odusami (Hakeem Kae-Kazim), an expert on the Sumerian language—the language on Abbey’s tape, as it happens—and a Van Helsing in the world of the extraterrestrial hypothesis. Dr. Odusami hops a flight to Nome and, along with a skeptical, even incredulous, Abel, who’d rather be spending time with Abbey over a quiet candlelit dinner in Anchorage, kicks the investigation into what passes for overdrive. Meanwhile, the “them” goes about its work, which amounts to it tidying up some loose ends with the usual intellects vast and cool. And contemptuous. And belligerent.

If you’re wondering why the aliens are speaking Sumerian, I’d ask you who said that they were aliens.

The Fourth Kind (2009)
The Fourth Kind (2009)

You don’t watch a movie like this for the acting, but Elias Koteas helps to sell the proceedings with his muted, no-nonsense De Niro in Alaska, at least when the writing doesn’t shoehorn his character into whatever the needs of the scene might be. He tends not to bring the best out of Jovovich, though—that would be their co-star Will Patton—and I can’t decide whether he rubs his face so often as Dr. Abel Campos or as himself. As for Patton, he does his job, a few misfires notwithstanding, but I liked him better in The Mothman Prophecies (2002), a similar but superior film. And I stand by my earlier Jovovich statements. She’s entirely believable as a woman undeterred by alien forces beyond her control, but her Abigail Tyler and Charlotte Milchard’s are difficult to square as the same person. Milchard’s Abbey is barely taped together, whereas Jovovich doesn’t know how to play broken in any way that we would believe, and we never get, or maybe we’re spared, the acting work that would reconcile the two.

You do watch a movie like this for the scares, and since we’re deep into the inoffensive zone to bring the film in at PG-13, I’d advise you to manage your expectations. It’s more of a creepshow than a horror show, with honest attempts to create a sense of foreboding, some more successful than others. Almost all the scares come from the found footage, which is actually preferable in this case, because it prevents the movie from showing too much. It’s not nearly enough for the climax, though, and since the Hollywood reenactment has no corresponding scene, the closest we get is to hear about it. We never actually see it happen. Maybe there’s a narrative reason for this, to introduce doubt, to be noncommittal, since “what I believe is mine to decide.” But what I believe that a movie needs a climax?

On the technical side, it’s a studio picture, which is to say competent, and more inventive than usual. I didn’t mind the split-screen sequences. They’re at least as good as Ang Lee’s in Hulk (2003), but that’s where the Ang Lee comparison ends, because there’s more than a little nervous energy here in the Incredible Hulk (2008) Louis Leterrier style. The camera never stays still for long, maybe to contrast with the reality footage, or maybe to keep the adrenaline up in the absence of machine guns and explosions. There are also plenty of handheld shots to hammer home the cinema verite feel, but Blair Witch shaky cam isn’t an issue. Excessiveness of crane shots and dolly shots might be. Occasionally the camerawork becomes so distracting that you’d rather go back to an interview segment. Or give the cinematographer a Ritalin.

What I liked best about The Fourth Kind, which I also liked about The Mothman Prophecies, is that it doesn’t shy away from the supernatural aspects associated with the encounter phenomenon. These have long been a part of the contact literature but rarely survive translation to the screen. We assume that the aliens are biological (or, depending on the theory, mechanical), with bodies composed of ordinary matter and spacecraft that operate on technological principles. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) makes exactly these assumptions, and they might hold up while the aliens remain as otherwise unexplained lights in the sky. But actual reports of fourth-kind encounters—encounters that result in physical abduction, or astral projection, or religious experience, or demon-style possession by noncorporeal beings—read less like science fiction stories, with incursions into territories ungoverned by science.

As any Jungian could tell you, Abbey.