I have to get this out of my head. I feel like it’s dug in there and I can’t think straight.
—Scott (Enzo Cilenti)
“I am actress Milla Jovovich,” announces Milla Jovovich at the start of The Fourth Kind. It is the film’s first and last even vaguely credible assertion.
Underline the “vaguely.” For even as she strides into a close-up, Jovovich is surrounded by slippy-slidey digital trees, a disconcerting unnatural nature that suggests she’s leading you down some sort of rabbit hole right up front. She spends a minute or so explaining that she’ll be playing psychologist Abbey Tyler in a film that means to “dramatize” events that took place in 2000. The film includes “actual footage,” she says, a phrase that will come up frequently in The Fourth Kind as a bit of text identifying skritchy video of therapy sessions and encounters with aliens, as if the text itself might deem what you’re seeing “actual.”
This footage offers up Abbey Tyler (played by an unnamed actress), who sits down with writer-director Olatunde Osunsanmi for an extended interview, with chunks cut into the fiction acted by Jovovich. Her Abbey is beset by “events,” some described for her friend and fellow shrink Abel (Elias Koteas), some providing grist for the suspicions of Nome, Alaska sheriff August (Will Patton), and others acted out in front of her children, Ashley (Mia McKenna Bruce), who’s gone blind following a trauma, and Ronnie, who blames mom for not handling that trauma. Abbey describes her recent history by way of soliciting a kind of sympathy: her husband Will was murdered by someone unknown who entered their bedroom while the couple was making love and stabbed him in the chest. She seeks to overcome her apparently hysterical inability to remember the intruder’s face through hypnosis, and in the meantime carries on Will’s own therapeutic project—hypnotizing Nome residents who have reported strange run-ins with a white owl—whose uncanny head-turning is featured prominently in their recollections.
As knotty as these story points seem, they are in fact mere set-up for a much larger mess concerning UFOs and alien abductions and the area’s violent history. The latter is a special sore point for August, as cases remain unsolved (as well as associated with the region’s high rate of alcoholism). When one of Abbey’s patients kills his family and himself following an especially unnerving hypnosis session, August brings her in for questioning: not only did she not notify his office concerning the guy’s instability, but hey, he has concerns about Will’s death, which the sheriff says didn’t happen quite the way she remembers it. The unraveling of Abbey’s life speeds up, as she pursues some kind of truth she believes is hidden in her patients (and her own) nightmares about the owl.
The plot sort of thickens when Abbey discovers that an audio-recording she’s made of herself includes the sounds of what seems an awesomely bad intruder who speaks Sumerian. Abbey brings in an expert, Dr. Awolowa Odusami (Hakeem Kae-Kazim), whose blackness and utter seriousness surely stand out in this version of Nome, though the film’s view is so narrow that it’s hard to tell. The only inhabitants in sight are all Abbey’s patients: is this because she’s succumbing to a virulent sort of insanity (proclaimed by August and corroborated by her increasingly wiggy behavior) or is it because aliens are invading her bedroom, calling themselves god and making her roar with pain and horror, all the while gumming up the video tape set up to observe them?
Where is Fox Mulder when you need him?
In the end, all of Abbey’s apparent experiences are really beside the point. What’s at issue repeatedly and rather agonizingly throughout The Fourth Kind is an effort to truthify those experiences. Sometimes this means that an abductee cannot explain what’s happened (he’s seen “The worst you can imagine,” and well, you’ll just have to take his word for that.) Most often this process takes the shape of split screens, as secenes where the so-called-but-not-real Abbey recounts what happened (in footage marked “actual”) are set alongside Jovovich’s reenactment (acknowledged as such). The film offers similar multiplications of her patient’s traumas, wherein actors recite lines, overlapping with the lines spoken by so-called-but-not-real versions of their characters.
But such layering doesn’t so much convince you that one side of the screen is real and the other is not. Rather, it italicizes an investment in claiming and re-presenting what’s real, or what was real, or what passes for real in a “witness”’ mind. Indeed, at one point Abbey cites a statistic, that some “11 million witnesses” have reported seeing UFOs: even as she suggests that they can’t all be liars, August is visibly unmoved. He’s cast here as the villain—and Patton’s rendition of ridiculous dialogue (“What you’re doing here is hurting people!”) is so over the top, performing his own sort of layering, that you forgive him for taking part in the whole mess.
You’re less inclined to fell charitable toward the film per se, as it fixes its claims to authenticity to wholly unconvincing performances and images. This raises another question The Fourth Kind can’t address, having to do with the association of realness with amateurish representation. This seems to be the coin of the realm in recent low-budgety fare: from The Blair Witch Project to Paranormal Activity, the draw is the faux-documentary rawness and seeming lack of sophistication (whether in awkward performances or handheld camera chaos). But it’s also what’s most visible in reality TV. The ongoing (and lucrative) commercialization of truth has created a big hole in how to represent it. And The Fourth Kind pretty much drives a truck through it.