There’s no getting around the fact that The Fourth Kind is a terrible film – ploddingly paced, acted with all the grace and subtlety of a telenovela, directed with the fluidity of a dry riverbed. It’s irritating, stupid and deathly dull.

It’s also got a couple of interesting ideas and makes some intriguing efforts, all of which fail in spectacular fashion. But you kind of have to give the movie, awful as it is, credit for giving something different a shot.

Anyone with Google and a portion of a functioning brain has long since figured out that Universal’s marketing claims – that this is some sort of a true story – are pure hokum. I have no real problem with that, on two grounds: one is that the idea of passing off fantastic fiction as documentation has been around for hundreds of years and the other is that the line between fact and fiction is actually one of the things that The Fourth Kind is thinking about. Again, it doesn’t do a particularly good job of thinking about that, but it’s unmistakably on the movie’s mind. 

Olatunde Osunsanmi wrote and directed the film, which weaves ‘real’ audio and video from a series of strange events that supposedly occurred in Nome, Alaska a decade ago with professional ‘reenactments’ starring the likes of Milla Jovovich and Elias Koteas. Osunsanmi uses split and multi screen techniques to overlay the two kinds of footage, and while the idea is solid and intriguing, he ultimately does nothing with it. At the beginning of the film the technique forces you to consider the artifice inherent in any ‘based on a true story’ movie – you see how the actors deliver lines using the same words as the ‘real’ people but using different intonations, you can’t help but notice the difference between the ‘real’ office of Jovovich’s character and her Hollywood movie version office – but once the movie gets to a place where semi-interesting events occur, this technique more or less drops. There are too many scenes where the ‘real’ footage is obscured by sudden (and presumably alien controlled) static but there’s no concurrent Hollywood version; instead of making us look at the line between fake and fact (and that line is literal! The screen divide between the ‘real’ footage and the ‘Hollywood’ footage moves back and forth depending on which part of the screen we should be looking at. Again, it’s a great idea, but one executed without effect) we’re just looking at some obviously faked ‘real’ footage.

Osunsanmi also earns credit for not just making a standard alien abduction movie where little grey men show up and perform experiments on Christopher Walken. Osunsanmi is interested in the phenomenon on a deeper level, both as something that is obviously true – people are having experiences of some kind – but also seemingly untrue – it just appears nuts that aliens would come all this way to do this to us… for decades. And he’s educated on modern thoughts on alien abduction, including theories that this has nothing to do with aliens at all. Osunsanmi lays out a bunch of cards on the table, but he waits until the third act to do so, and even then he doesn’t really get into anything in detail. There are a number of schools of thought on UFOs and contact phenomena, not all of which follow the extraterrestrial hypothesis; I appreciate that Osunsanmi nods to this stuff but I’m disappointed that he doesn’t do much else with it.

Part of that problem is in the pacing. It takes about a half hour before someone even mentions alien abduction; since this is being marketed as an alien abduction movie that kind of pacing is deadly to audiences who spend the entire third act a mile ahead of everyone on screen. Osunsanmi seems intent on Blair Witch-ing his movie up, in that he doesn’t want to go for the big gesture or big reveal, but I hated that in Blair Witch. And it’s even more annoying in The Fourth Kind, which has a Hollywood component – visualizing some of the stuff on audio tapes or on heavily obfuscated video makes sense in this setting. Wouldn’t it only deepen the film’s thematic examination of the line between fiction and fact by having some obviously phony aliens show up and have them contrasted with more subtle aliens in the fuzzy footage?

All of what I’ve been discussing sounds interesting, and maybe watchable, but you have to keep in mind that the movie itself isn’t an eighth as fascinating as the ideas it plops down and walks away from in the final twenty minutes. If I believed The Fourth Kind was being a notch more meta I would have assumed that the performances – especially Will Patton’s bordering on parody sheriff – were arch commentary on the fakeness of true stories. But I suspect the reality is just that the actors fail continuously throughout the movie.

There are a couple of decent jump scares in The Fourth Kind and a scene or two with elements of tension, but the movie is flat and lifeless. There are ways that Osunsanmi could have used the ‘real’ footage and audio to build tension, but he just wants to play the ‘real’ stuff and the ‘Hollywood’ stuff side by side. The film’s a real slog, one without a decent payoff (beyond a truly goofy final reveal and a series of closing title cards that rival the opening crawl of Uwe Boll’s Alone in the Dark). I’d still like to see someone tackle the weirder aspects of alien abduction, but I’d like to see them do it in a movie that works.

4 out of 10