It's Art Bell month at the movies. Bell, who in the '90s made his late-night show Coast to Coast AM home for believers in all manner of paranormal activity a kind of true-life radio version of The X Files must be tickled to see the November lineup at the multiplex. He and his guests talked about the psychic phenomenon known as remote viewing, which is the subject of this week's George Clooney semicomedy, The Men Who Stare at Goats. Bell promoted the notion that Mayan mystics predicted some great cataclysm to befall the earth on Dec. 21, 2012, and next week Roland Emmerich has a thriller on that very theme: 2012. Bell lived near Area 51, the Nevada military base that may be a giant freezer warehouse for alien bodies; in two weeks there's a Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson movie called Planet 51.
The favorite topic of Bell and his listeners was alien abduction: the belief that hostile extraterrestrials were stealing humans, performing obscure experiments on them and returning them to earth. Over the years, callers by the hundreds testified to this astral felony, and though direct evidence is, oh, sketchy, alien abduction remains an enduring urban legend. Rather, a rural one, since the human victims are usually out in the boonies, far from help or, for that matter, from scientists who might investigate and challenge their stories. But isolation is a prime factor in horror stories the fear of being alone, in the dark, confronted with some mysterious, nefarious force and that suits the Nome, Alaska, setting of The Fourth Kind, a supposed semidocumentary on an abduction case. It's the fall's very Art-Belliest movie. Also possibly the silliest.
Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind popularized astronomer J. Allen Hynek's classification of alien encounters. The third kind was contact. The fourth is abduction. We're reminded of this at the beginning of the new movie. Then Milla Jovovich (taking a big step down from her celebrity-making role as the gorgeous automaton in The Fifth Element) tells us she'll be impersonating a Nome psychiatrist, Abigail Emily Tyler. At times a split screen shows Jovovich as Tyler on the right, consulting with her patients, and "actual footage" of the allegedly actual Dr. Tyler on the left.
Some of her patients, when under hypnosis, have claimed to be troubled by the specter of owls looming outside their bedrooms at 3:33 a.m. With each new session, the analysands grow more agitated: "It's not an owl," it's some dread thing come to get me. Two of these patients soon die violently, and Dr. Tyler, whose husband was murdered next to her late one night, is suspected by the wily, inane sheriff (Will Patton) of being somehow responsible for the deaths. He becomes even more suspicious when Dr. Tyler's young daughter goes missing. Murdered and stashed away? Kidnapped? Or alien abducted? Whatever the answer, the folks in this movie have some loose intellectual hinges. Suddenly Ted Stevens doesn't seem like Alaska's loopiest citizen.
Writer-director Olatunde Osunsanmi wants you to believe that everything he shows you that's not reenacted by professionals really happened, and is documented by the omnipresent video cameras. It's a device used far more successfully in Paranormal Activity, which had the added benefit of being a good movie. The real touchstones here are the "documentaries" about psychic phenomena on the "History" Channel, and of the Alien Autopsy fraudumentary that Fox ran a few times to high ratings in 1995. All of these mix reenactments with grainy, blurry purportedly true footage, and score neither as science nor as entertainment.
But the TV shows are mere lures to the low plausibility bar of home viewers. Watching them costs nothing but time. It's a different matter to ask moviegoers to pay for The Fourth Kind, a movie that's all setup and [SPOILER ALERT!], with the exception of one creepy levitation, no payoff in the chill department. Osunsanmi is so dogged in pursuing his faux-doc style that he offers hardly a glimpse of extraterrestrials [END SPOILER ALERT]. You'd do better downloading an old Art Bell show say, the one about the guy who put an alien in his freezer than investigating this evidence of subnormal activity.