If you’ve ever watched Unsolved Mysteries, the amiably hokey TV show that documented “real-life” conspiracy theories and unexplained phenomena, you are already well acquainted with the pleasures of Olatunde Osunsanmi’s The Fourth Kind. Like Unsolved Mysteries, this tale of alien abduction simultaneously retold and induced by hypnosis alternates between dramatizations of events and evidence—in this case found footage, of those same events. Osunsanmi’s film, however, stands apart in that its pivotal scenes of mesmerism are only about 25% real footage while Unsolved Mysteries‘s segments usually used about the same proportion of dramatized recreations. As foolhardy as it might be to try to convince people that what they’re seeing really happened, Osunsanmi heads off the inevitable charge that he’s perpetrating another Blair Witch-type hoax by freely admitting that at least part of his film is fiction. The rest is up to the viewer to decide.
Fourth Kind begins with an introduction from fanboy goddess and actress Milla Jovovich as herself. She tells us that she’s going to play the part of real-life psychologist Dr. Abigail Tyler, and she does so as candidly as she can before the spooky woodland backdrop surrounding her starts to spin as if she were riding a carousel. Tyler and the rest of the characters’ names are falsified so as to protect the anonymity of the people that actually suffered the film’s traumatic events. Jovovich’s confession, related immediately to the viewer ostensibly for the sake of full disclosure, is a direct appeal to our innate skepticism. As far as blunt but well-seasoned acts of misdirection go, it’s a good one, even if it breaks no new ground. (Carnival barkers use a similar technique all the time, so why not filmmakers?).
The facts of the case, if there are any, are as follows: After the untimely death of her husband, also a psychologist, Abigail tried to complete his research on patients who claim to have been visited in the middle of the night by moon-faced owls. During hypnosis, one patient suddenly freaks out and claims that no such owl exists, leaving Tyler’s office distraught and going on to kill his family and then himself. Despite warnings from the local sheriff (Will Patton), who believes her hypnosis caused the murder-suicide, Tyler continues her investigation only to become a victim of the titular kind of alien encounter, the kind that involves abduction.
Osunsanmi presents footage of the earlier, tamer encounters through split-screens that juxtapose the surviving “real” videotapes with Jovovich and Co.‘s reenactments. Because they’re only selectively trotted out when things get particularly spooky, they’re positioned in such a way as to preserve their questionable aura of veracity. As the aliens—who apparently speak the ancient language the Sumerians did—get more combative, the “real” footage increasingly takes center stage. This footage is overridden with static that brutishly heightens the actors’—I mean, the survivors’—howls of pain as they levitate, get possessed, speak dead languages, declare themselves God, and get abducted by mimicking the look of those more turbulent events.
That later, more direct representation of violence is obviously more provocative than the earlier footage because the loudness of the scene is now assaulting the viewer both aurally and visually. The comparative restraint exhibited by the split-screens and the distancing narrative framing structure of the dramatized segments in general is gone. With that pretense out of the way, the filmmakers can finally go straight for the viewer’s throat. And Osunsanmi does, with appropriate gusto.
The dramatized footage is similarly effective at abating our fears of falsity by openly giving disbelievers ample opportunity to cry foul. The sheriff and her colleagues continually treat Tyler’s testimony as if it came from a hysterical woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, because, well, that’s what she is. Her PhD doesn’t count for anything because of her immediate proximity to all the strange goings-on. When she’s asked to provide proof of her wacktacular assertions, it, of course, does not hold up to her contemporaries’ scrutiny. But the viewer knows better, or at least Osunsanmi wants us to think that we do. Fourth Kind ends with archival footage of Tyler in a wheelchair, suggesting that the “real” footage we see of her being aggressively shaken by an invisible force was not just a product of some creative editing. At last, verifiable proof!
Another trick escape route Osunsanmi provides us with comes from his representation of Tyler’s home life—the most melodramatic and therefore most dissembling aspect of the film’s recreated events. Her kids are not just visibly terrorized after their father’s death, they’re completely defined by that distress. Tyler’s son thinks she’s in denial about what really happened and her daughter is suffering from trauma-induced blindness. Little hotbeds of emotions that they are, their declarative performances announce the fact that you’re watching a woman act like she’s under attack and not real footage (though the woman that plays the real Abigail turns in a haunting turn reminiscent of Shelley Duvall’s in The Shining).
Tyler’s kids also provide the final twist of the knife because nothing says “true story” quite like the line from the film’s coda that announces that Tyler’s daughter, apparently taken by the alien linguist deities, has never been found. That one line is rife with the kind of suggestion of illogical possibility that was abundant in the info-dump speeches with which Robert Stack used to open and close every segment of Unsolved Mysteries. It condenses the real-life detail that we’re shown only through the most artificial of reenactments into a brief conclusion that sticks to the facts. Spare as those facts may be, they let your imagination run wild, just as the grainy real footage lets you see whatever monsters you want amid a blizzard of static-y snow. Osunsanmi knows that everybody secretly wants to believe and when it comes to giving the people what they want, he does not disappoint.