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Abbey (Milla Jovovich) treats patients affected by close encounters.

3 out of 4 stars


The Fourth Kind

  • Directed and written by Olatunde Osunsanmi
  • Starring Milla Jovovich and Will Patton
  • Classification: 14A

Before the opening credits roll, the star of The Fourth Kind , actress Milla Jovovich, steps out of character to reveal that she will be portraying the real-life Abbey Tyler, who bore witness in Alaska to strange doings we are bound to find "extremely disturbing." Fair warning, but it hardly seems necessary. After all, from the state that gave the world Sarah Palin, strange doings aren't exactly unexpected. In truth, what follows is less disturbing than intriguing - to audiences hip to the mechanics of horror flicks, it's rare fun to be fooled, and this one is pretty damned clever.

The cleverness begins, and continues, with the assertion that the unfolding drama is based on documentary evidence; indeed, actual video and audio tapes are woven throughout the picture, offering concrete proof that the surrounding re-enactments are just that -acted-out reprises of stuff that truly happened. Admittedly, the "based on a true story" label is always designed to encourage us to more readily suspend our disbelief. But here, that factual label becomes an integral part of the fictional fabric, stitched together strongly enough that the two are hard to unravel. Yes, we've seen that stitching before, Blair Witch- style, in the good name of horror, but seldom so seamlessly.

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The tailor is writer-director Olatunde Osunsanmi, who regularly splits the screen to establish the story's bona fide credentials. On one side, there's Milla as Abbey the psychologist, in her Nome office, hypnotizing patients suffering from severe sleep-disorder. On the other, there's the actual Abbey, looking frailer and somewhat less attractive, hypnotizing actual patients suffering from the actual disorder. As the hypnosis takes effect, the patients, both the actors and their real-life counterparts, are heard giving eerily similar testimony: All have seen the same "white owl" that presages a close encounter of the fourth kind, an abducting alien presence so monstrously awful that the recovered memory has them screaming in terror.

Awakened from the induced trance, they leave deeply upset and their subsequent behaviour grows terribly erratic. In fact, Nome has seen an alarming rise in its homicide and suicide rates. In split-screen again, one such tragedy is recounted for us - the dramatization may be just another scene in another movie, but the archival police video is definitely credible. So is Abbey's personal stake in taping her interviews and documenting the evidence: Her husband recently died under equally mysterious circumstances. To the disbelieving local sheriff (Will Patton), that death was simply one more addition to the suicide column, a sad but not uncommon statistic in these northern parts where, through the winter's perpetual night, hallucinations abound and depression is contagious.

In this chilly fashion, the seeds of confusion are sown and, for a longer stretch than usual in the contrived horror genre, we're genuinely perplexed - maybe not about the existence of hovering aliens in our midst (although that's always a delicious thought), but at least about the presence of a collective wackiness in a locale with an already wacky rep. Better yet, Osunsanmi is shrewd to encourage our imaginings by not putting anything graphic on camera, content instead to deal in hints and allusions and all that apparently corroborating video evidence. His cast works in the same duplicitous spirit, leaving us to sift through the layers of artifice, wondering where and if the acting ends.

When we figure it out, the solution seems thin and the puzzle disappointing. But that's the way with most puzzles and, besides, it's not really the point of The Fourth Kind . Rather, the mission here is to demonstrate how, in this explosive age of dubious information, cynicism can be quickly trumped by gullibility. "What you believe is yours to decide," the film reminds us. When balloon boys can fool the foolish, when entire news networks and their lighter-than-air anchors can float off on any saucer that flies, maybe that's a reminder worth heeding.

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Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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