No one likes to be taken advantage of. It plays with already questionable self-esteem issues, especially for those who fancy themselves as smug, smart-ass know-it-alls. Especially in today’s cynical, post-modern age, it’s hard to pull the wool over the audience’s eyes - cinematically, artistically, or factually. Cracks in the defining demeanor always appear, letting you know full well that everything you’ve just experienced is a lie. We critics fancy ourselves as ace detectives in the world of filmic bullshit. We love to call out amateurism, arrogance, a lack of imagination, and all other facets of filmmaking that get under our skin.
So perhaps this is why the recent screening of Universal’s The Fourth Kind has left me in such a quandary. I consider myself a smart man (though several in the online readership may doubt that claim) and, at 48 years of age, quite capable of uncovering a con-job when I see it. A few years ago, when everyone was yelling about how Borat was all “real”, about how obviously talented Sacha Baron Cohen captured segments with Pamela Anderson and others as part of a “guerilla comedy” style of filmmaking, I recognized the ruse and called it out. After dozens of hate filled emails and comments, the actor (and studio) eventually admitted to ‘staging’ several of the sequences. Score!
Similarly, I have a hard time falling for films that propose to be the truth (the whole Blair Witch Project prerelease hype) or use a matter of fact basis for selling their story (Paranormal Activity). I often chalk it up as being too old, too wise, and very intolerant of the trade’s tricks. So when I went into the alien abduction thriller by Olatunde Osunsanmi, supposedly based on ‘actual’ footage captured by psychiatrist Dr. Abigail Emily Tyler, I didn’t know what to expect. The thought that some unknown filmmaker had (a) found an individual with actual recordings of creepy close encounters, and (b) was using the real material as part of his narrative in a major studio release should have sent off big fat, “listen up fool” warning flags. Instead, I went in completely naïve…and got taken. Big time!
That’s right - up until the moment when the “real” Dr. Tyler (a now obvious actress) went into her horror film inspired trance and turned into a monstrous hellbeast with the voice of a rotting Regan MacNeil - I was convinced that Osunsanmi had stumbled across one of the greatest under-reported stories of the last decade. I was floored by the first few “hypnosis” sessions, watching the actors recreate what the split-screen showed were “authentic” moments of terrifying recall. Sure, all the stuff about owls and bright lights sounded like a combination of Twin Peaks and a lame episode of In Search of…, but it reeled me in and set its hook. After the eerie initial “recording” of Dr. Tyler’s own experience with abduction (including that shocking voice spewing what turns out to be Sumerian), I was ready for anything.
Little did I know that The Fourth Kind would tempt me at every turn to discover its hoax. The story takes us to a police standoff where a patient of Dr. Tyler’s, a typical Alaskan burly man named “Tommy”, takes a gun and starts shooting up his family. As the “recreation” sits side-by-side with proposed police tape, I stared in stunned disbelief. They were actually going to show this horrific deed onscreen, I wondered, trying to imagine how a story like this fell outside the purview of the mainstream media for so long. As the pixilated ending played out, I was mortified. How was Osunsanmi getting away with this, I thought? Of course, the best ballyhoo was yet to come.
When Milla Jovivich (as Dr. Tyler) is accused of negligence in Tommy’s case, she reluctantly puts another patient named Scott under, hoping to clarify and certify what’s happening. Within minutes, she’s convinced its aliens, and within another couple of scenes she is called to the same man’s house. Again, a camera is set up, and in perfectly DePalma-esque execution, Osunsanmi shows us how Scott, possessed by his memories of being taken up with the extraterrestrials, brings on his own demon voice and literally levitates above the bed. That’s right - actual footage of an actual human being hovering over his bed is shown, even as the material freezes and mis-frames (due to the advanced technology of the aliens present in the room, naturally).
Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! The sound of BS bells going off! I should have heard them, but didn’t. After all, wouldn’t YouTube be making a mint off such “proof” of extraterrestrial contact? Wouldn’t the Amazing Randi, famed magician and longtime debunker of such F/X falderal, have to cough up his $1 million reward after witnessing such a stunning example of life beyond our planet - or at the very least, a real example of paranormal powers? Huh? But no, I was still sitting there, oblivious to the chicanery on display. I marveled at another police tape, this time showing a spaceship-like shape hovering over the Tyler home with complementary freaked out officer narrating what the scrambled image wouldn’t allow us to see. And took it all in and felt the occasional tingle down the back of my spine. God - what an IDIOT!
Ninety-eight minutes later, I walked out of the screening believing that, somehow, an unknown filmmaker had found an equally unreported story about Nome, Alaska’s history of alien abduction and nurtured it into some manner of documentary/docudrama where actors told the story while actual recorded material supplied the proof. Upon arriving home, I immediately went into my office and starting researching my review. I looked up Dr. Abigail Tyler. Nothing. I went to Olatunde Osunsanmi’s IMDb page. He was a relative newcomer to filmmaking. I tried to track the movie’s claim that these events happened over the course of nine days in October of 2000. Nothing. Everywhere I looked, there was no way to verify the main threads of The Fourth Kind‘s claims. And then I found the articles by the webheads who actually had the ability to dig deeper than I…and my huckstered heart sank.
Talk about feeling like a grade-A stone-faced sucker. Alaskan authorities had never heard of Tyler, her supposedly dead husband, her missing daughter - and most importantly - her proposed licensing as a psychiatrist in the State. No such person exists. Period. Sites sourced by Universal and its PR didn’t come online until 2009, meaning that nothing about The Fourth Kind‘s events was available for research until a few months ago. There is no information anywhere about the murder-suicide of Tommy and his family, no account of police staking out Dr. Tyler’s home and seeing flying saucers. Unless there is a massive attempt to cover-up the truth by some rogue government agency (shut up, conspiracy theorists!), Olatunde Osunsanmi tricked us all - or better yet, enter into a deal with the Universal devil to sell his unorthodoxed thriller as something it clearly is not.
You see, The Fourth Kind is NOT the truth. It is a piece of fiction using other pieces of fiction to verify its already fake plotline. Imagine, for a moment, if Robert Zemeckis told everyone that Forrest Gump was a real person, that the footage claiming to be actor Tom Hanks interacting with President’s Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon and talking with Dick Cavett and John Lennon was actually all 100% legitimate. It just so happens that the real life rube looks an awful lot like one of America’s favorite superstars. Now take it a step further and watch as Paramount plays along with the joke, creating websites celebrating the real Mr. Gump’s life and the different historical events he was part of. As you sat back in entertained wonder, trying to figure out how this remarkable story missed your radar entirely, somewhere in a Tinseltown skyscraper, studio heads and staffers are laughing - laughing all the way to the bank, laughing at you for being so undeniable gullible.
That’s what’s happening now with this oddball entry. I am not sure what to make of The Fourth Kind. Growing up in the ‘70s, UFOs and stories of alien encounters were part of my formative years. It was a hot topic three decades ago, having died down quite a bit thanks to the Internet, X-Files, and an overall belief that, if we are not alone, we should be left as such. Many critics are slamming the film - not for its lack of truth, but for its jumbled, almost incoherent approach. Others are simply shouting “shenanigans” and leaving the effort to die amongst an already overloaded box office. If I had known it was all a joke from the moment I walked into the theater, my opinion of The Fourth Kind might be very similar. But I was a clueless mark when I took my screening seat and the grafters got me. I got swindled. Like the old adage says, shame on me.