Paranormal Activity’s unlikely run atop the box-office chart may have come to an end but the moviegoing public’s nascent fascination with otherworldly phenomena — the unfriendly variety in particular — shows no signs of waning. The Fourth Kind a supernatural thriller from writer-director Olatunde Osunsanmi represents Hollywood’s latest attempt to capitalize on this peculiar trend.
Paranormal Activity and The Fourth Kind are very different movies to be sure but they share the same basic approach employing gritty documentary-style footage to convince us that what we’re watching unfold onscreen is more “real” — and thus more convincing — than the typical glossy Hollywood thriller.
But The Fourth Kind goes far beyond Paranormal Activity in its effort to establish its legitimacy. In an unprecedented — and exceedingly ballsy — maneuver star Milla Jovovich begins the film by breaking the fourth wall and addressing the camera directly. In a lengthy monologue she introduces herself as “actress Milla Jovovich ” explains that she’ll be portraying real-life psychologist Dr. Abigail Tyler and declares that the documentary footage scattered throughout The Fourth Kind is authentic recorded during a sleep-disorder study conducted in Nome Alaska a few years ago.
Why Nome? Because we’re told its citizens are afflicted with an unusual number of nighttime sleep disturbances the bulk of which are accompanied by terrifying visions of hostile alien-like creatures. Nasty fellows these extra-terrestrials are taunting and tormenting and probing their victims as they lie helpless paralyzed with fear. Some of the otherworldly visitors even have the audacity to take possession of their somnolent subjects using them as vessels to deliver ominous warnings to Abby and her colleagues. Speaking in ancient tongues with voices horribly distorted they demand that she end her research.
But Abby won’t listen to them and her persistence effects increasingly dire consequences. One of her afflicted patients kills himself and his family; another is paralyzed after levitating during a harrowing hypnotic episode; finally the aliens set their sights on Abby herself. One might be tempted to dismiss these episodes as merely the hallucinations of a badly traumatized woman — the classic unreliable narrator — if it weren’t all captured on video.
For those willing to buy into The Fourth Kind’s claims of authenticity the experience is at times genuinely terrifying. But after a while it becomes increasingly obvious that the film’s documentary sequences are staged — and often badly so. Director Osunsanmi brought a clever idea to the table but he didn't quite have the skills — or the actors — to pull it off and the result feels like an elaborate cinematic con job.
This is one of those Rocky-style films in which the climax is built-in. We know there's going to be a fight where the underdog goes up against the big bad champ. It's the rest of the movie that needs to keep our attention and luckily Undisputed does a decent job save a few scenes that could have been cut. When the world heavyweight boxing champ George "Iceman" Chambers (Ving Rhames) is sentenced to 6 to 8 years for rape he is sent to the newly built Sweetwater Maximum Security Prison in the Mojave Desert. Of course he vehemently denies the charges rages at his lawyers to find a way out of this mess and is generally in a pretty foul mood. In fact he bullies and pushes people around just about wherever he goes including Monroe Hutchens (Wesley Snipes) who as Chambers finds out is the reigning undisputed prison boxing champ--10 years running. Hutchens is a hero of sorts to the rest of the prisoners and this doesn't sit well with the Iceman. Seizing a glorious opportunity to make some serious cash longtime inmate and mob boss Mendy Ripstein (Peter Falk) sets up a boxing match between the two. He lures Hutchens into the ring on the promise of prize money to send home to his sister and three kids. For Iceman it's the chance to get out on special parole via mob ties to the parole board. For both it means a fight to the finish by London Prize Ring rules -- no referee lighter gloves and the last man standing wins. So who'll be king of the hill?
The fact that Rhames' Iceman is more than a little reminiscent of real-life boxing champ Mike Tyson and the legal woes he suffered a few years back is certainly not lost. Yet Rhames infuses his character with a certain intelligence and a lot of cocky bravado. When he is on the screen you can't take your eyes off him partly because he takes up half of it with his hulking mass. It's also kind of fun to see Rhames playing the baddie again although not quite as malevolent as Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction. Snipes also puts in a compelling performance as Hutchens who was on his way to being a boxing champ himself before he lost his cool in a crime of passion and wound up in prison for murder. Hutchens doesn't say much but quietly waits out his sentence making Japanese temples out of toothpicks. His character however comes alive when he is in the ring and for a man of little words Snipes looks good dealing out the punches. The supporting characters are hit and miss. Falk seems sorely out of place among all the hoodlums and just a little too senile to be believable as a tough-nut gangster. Fisher Stevens (Short Circuit) however as Hutchens' crony Ratbag lives up to his character's name nicely. Other inmates Jon Seda (Selena) as companion to Ripstein and Wes Studi (Last of the Mohicans) as the Iceman's only ally are also both memorable in small parts.
Action director Walter Hill best known for his '80s hits 48 Hrs. and The Long Riders seems to be trying out some new techniques in his older years. Without going for the typical opening credits Undisputed launches the audience right into a boxing match. Hill alternates between black and white and color to make his points but the most unique technique is how he introduces the characters. As each new character comes on screen they are immediately freeze-framed with titles detailing who they are when they were convicted and what they were convicted of. Doing this isn't necessarily a key to the story but you get to the point where you want it just because you are actually curious in finding out what crimes they've all committed. The film only drags when Rhames and Snipes are not on the screen and of course all the fancy camerawork really only pays off for the big finale. Watching these two animals duke it out in a cage is as exciting as you'd expect. Maybe not quite as bloody as say the ring action in Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull but fun nonetheless.
A family headed for a weekend in the backwoods is stranded when a wounded deer jumps in front of their car and sends them into a ditch. A posse of threatening rednecks appears and the ringleader Otis (John Speredakos) shoots the wounded deer point blank as the child in the car looks on. This is how the filmmakers establish Otis as the bad guy--and this will also create dramatic tension later between Otis and the Wendigo monster so you never quite know which one's actually terrorizing the family throughout the film. Once it's painfully clear who the bad guy is the trouble begins in earnest. When dad George mom Kim and son Miles finally arrive at the country house where they're staying they realize that someone's been shootin' up walls and windows. By now everyone in the theater knows it must be Otis. He certainly reappears soon enough--and now the big mean deer killer "knows where we live!" You bet he does Miles and he's watching your parents have sex right now. But that just makes him a pervert--not a psycho killer. Or does it? You'll spend the rest of this nightmare movie waiting to find out the answer to this and other compelling questions. Like what the hell is a Wendigo anyway?
When little Miles' head first appears in the back seat of the car you can't help but gasp. It's Dewey--oops Erik Per Sullivan--with hair and playing about three years younger than he looks like he really is. Yes Malcolm in the Middle fans your dear hamster-toting pal has finally hit the big screen. The filmmakers probably told him that he'd be the next Haley Joel Osment: "Wendigo is the next Sixth Sense. You just have to be in it!" Poor kid. It's not and he didn't. Still he does well enough with material that calls for him to do little other than look vacant and cry. Patricia Clarkson as Kim and Jake Weber as George are vacuous and their performances utterly forgettable. Of course the utter crappiness of the script doesn't help and since they have most of the lines they come off the worst.
There's a certain '80s charm to the wintry look of this movie which is probably more to director of photography Terry Stacey's (Spring Forward Trick) credit than to director Larry Fessenden's. Credit Fessenden who also wrote and edited and designed the Wendigo creature with well the Wendigo mostly. Because the sheer stupidity of this completely non-frightening creature pretty much nails exactly why this movie is as awful as it is. The Wendigo looks kind of like a deer standing on its hind legs with um hands. Yeah that's right. Hands. The creature might be the stuff of Miles' nightmares--there's certainly that possibility--but surely it should be at least a little scary. It's a joke as it's incarnated here. This is also the case with any number of scenes that are supposed to be scary but just aren't: at Otis' place the hangin' deer meet is supposed to spook ya; it doesn't. Dad and Miles chop wood with an axe? Come on. Chopping wood is only a frightening event if your daddy slices his leg open with a chain saw. When George falls off the back of a sled leaving Miles to torpedo down the hillside and later flee on foot as a smoke-thing (Wendigo spirit perhaps?) roils after him you're not frightened. You just want to cry "Run Dewey run!" The biggest joke is the ghostly Native American guy who appears at key moments (and once in a Quickie Mart) never speaks but manages to deliver voiceovers like "Wendigo is a mighty powerful spirit…part wind part tree part man part beast shape shifting." He also gives Dewey--oops Miles--the little carved statue that will play a key role in the plot's twist.