The Fourth Kind

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When so many films are bad in lazy and ordinary ways, it’s refreshing to occasionally see one that fails interestingly. “The Fourth Kind” is that sort of movie: not good, for sure, but at least it appears to have been attempting something intriguing.

Thanks to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (which it’s strange no one in this film ever mentions), the common man knows about the degrees of alien contact. The first kind is seeing a UFO; second is seeing evidence of aliens, such as crop circles or Flavor Flav; third is actual physical interaction with them, which in movies usually means either we kill them or they kill us; and the fourth kind is when they abduct you.

The film “The Fourth Kind” purports to be a dramatization of ACTUAL EVENTS! that ACTUALLY OCCURRED! in Nome, Alaska, in 2000, when a psychologist named Abigail Tyler treated several patients who’d had unusual dreams and visions, and whose own husband died under suspicious, possibly alien-related circumstances. To bolster this claim of truth, the film shows actual videotaped footage from Dr. Tyler’s hypnosis sessions, plus police surveillance video, audio recordings, and other source materials. Sometimes the director, Olatunde Osunsanmi (who also wrote the screenplay), will use a split screen, with the original footage next to the reenactment, to show us how accurately he’s recreating it.

Of course, that raises the question of why, if this is a true story with plenty of video evidence, didn’t Osunsanmi just show us the footage? Why hire actors to dramatize it at all? Purely commercial reasons? Gaps in the source material? Or … something else?

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say I’m confident the “actual” footage is fake. If there really were footage as revelatory as this is, you’d have seen it already. It would have been on YouTube. Heck, some of it would have been on CNN. But that’s almost irrelevant. Even if it’s fake, Osunsanmi and crew have done a truly impressive job of making it look convincing, and that helps amplify the story’s spookiness.

Unfortunately, there still isn’t much spookiness here. Osunsanmi relies too heavily on the “it’s all true!” gimmick and neglects the other elements of filmmaking — acting, story structure, dialogue, and so forth. Apart from a few intense moments in which hypnotized patients relive their alien encounters, nothing here is going to induce much terror in the audience, no matter how much they buy in to the premise.

Milla Jovovich plays Abigail, and even introduces herself — as actress Milla Jovovich — at the beginning of the film, to let us know she’s playing a real person and that this stuff really happened. (Like I said, Osunsanmi is REALLY COMMITTED to this premise, and I’m not being sarcastic when I say I admire that level of P.T. Barnum-ism.) Abigail has been seeing a psychologist of her own, Abel Campos (Elias Koteas), following her husband’s death two months earlier, while treating patients who report a lot of similarities in their separate nighttime disruptions.

There are strange details. Abigail’s young daughter, Ashley (Mia McKenna-Bruce), went blind after her father was killed, a psychological response to the trauma. Abigail’s late husband was attempting, before his death, to contact an anthropologist (Hakeem Kae-Kazim) who specializes in ancient languages. Abigail’s patients keep being woken up at night by a white owl outside their windows, but under hypnosis realize it’s not an owl at all but … something else. Attempting to remember the details only increases their agitation and mental instability.

The town sheriff (Will Patton) has no patience for whatever Abigail is doing to these people in their therapy sessions, since it seems to be making them more dangerous to themselves and others. Dr. Campos, meanwhile, doesn’t buy Abigail’s theories about aliens, but he’s hard-pressed to explain what he’s seen, either.

The makings of a perfectly good alien thriller are here, but Osunsanmi — whose only previous feature, 2005’s straight-to-video “WIthIN,” appears to have been a cheap ripoff of “The Descent” and “The Cave” — doesn’t flesh out the story with enough plausible scenarios and realistic dialogue to give it weight. It only slightly less cheesy, and only a little scarier, than an episode of “Unsolved Mysteries.”

C- (1 hr., 38 min.; PG-13, a little profanity, some intense moments, a little violence.)

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