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Entries in I Am Number Four [2011] (1)

Monday
Feb212011

I Am Number Four (2011)

Sum Kind of Wonderful

D.J. Caruso is the Quentin Tarantino of PG-13 action thrillers. He only directs (whereas Tarantino writes his own movies), but his passion for making new art out of the fun, familiar elements of other films shines through in Disturbia, Eagle Eye, and now I Am Number Four.  These are smart, engaging teen-centric adventures that remind us all of a life before Twilight.

Make no mistake, the Dreamworks marketing would love to land the Twilight audience, and they’ve plastered the sulky image of pretty-boy Alex Pettyfer in a rain-soaked hoodie all over television and the Internet.  The trailers show a lot of jumping and leaping through the woods and Pettyfer exchanging zonked out hearts-in-the-eyes glances with co-star Dianna Agron.  But I Am Number Four is as different from Twilight as it is from The King’s Speech, and if you’re going to watch this movie it’s best to shut those preconceptions out of your head.

The story centers on an alien teen named John Smith (Pettyfer) who must move from town to town with his protector, Henri (Timothy Olyphant) to avoid being murdered by hit men from a rival alien race.  John (not his real name) is one of nine gifted survivors from Lorien, a planet ravaged by the brutal Mogadorians; if the Mogadorians kill the nine kids in sequence, there will be no one to stop them from conquering our planet (it’s unclear what denotes the proper order, but the writers probably stashed that little gem for the sequel).

Number Three gets killed in the pre-credits sequence, and John receives a burn on his leg in the shape of his friend’s cosmic sigil.  He and Henri move into a foreclosed, abandoned house in Paradise, OH, and begin a life of small-town boredom.  At his new high school, John meets Sarah (Agron), the once-popular girl who was shunned after having given up popularity and her bully-jock boyfriend Mark (Jake Abel) in favor of studying photography.  He also meets Sam (Callan MacAuliffe) a science nerd who believes in UFOs and is the constant target of Mark’s vicious passing-period attacks.

By now, I’m sure you’ve guessed where all of this is headed.  The Mogadorians land in town and John must use the new alien powers that he’s recently manifested to protect his friends and save the world (no points for guessing that Henri goes the way of Obi-wan Kenobi).  In fact, the biggest knock I’ve heard against I Am Number Four is that it’s a wholly derivative teen action movie, to which I have to ask, “So?”

I have no problem with movies that steal from other movies, as long as they’re entertaining enough and put just enough of a spin on the material that I’m not counting the seconds until closing credits halfway through the first act.  This film delivers on that score, giving us what is essentially an off-brand retelling of Superman’s origin—fitting because it was co-written by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, the creators of the Smallville television series.

Like the best episodes of that show, I Am Number Four builds a compelling mythology that reveals itself over the course of the film.  Granted, a lot of it smacks of franchise road-mapping, but there’s a lot of good stuff here.  Take John’s dog, for example.

In the beginning of the movie, as John and Henri move from Florida, we see a little green lizard scurry aboard their truck.  In Ohio, the lizard morphs into a small dog that John “discovers” in his yard.  By this point, we know that the Mogadorians are in hot pursuit, and that John is manifesting “legacies”, strange new powers that are unique to each of the gifted Loriens.  So we’re left to wonder, just what the hell is the dog?  Is it a Mogadorian spy?  Is it Number Five?

We find out later that the dog is a guardian shape-shifter that acts as a back-up protector. The Mogadorians have one, too, and when John’s pet morphs into its true form, it kind of still looks like a dog—which raises all kinds of cool questions about this universe’s ideas about the origin of life on Earth.

Right before the film’s climax, we meet Number Six (Teresa Palmer), a wise-cracking, ass-kicking chick with big guns and a legacy that allows her to teleport like Nightcrawler in X2.  It’s in Number Six that we clearly see the influence of the third screenwriter, Marti Noxon, who used to write for and executive-produce the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series.  She exudes cool as she quips and smirks her way through killing Mogadorian thugs; my only issue with her was Palmer’s thick Australian accent, which caused a couple seconds’ delay in understanding half her lines.

Leaving the sci-fi action elements aside for a moment, let’s talk about John’s relationship with his friends.  Unlike the Twilight movies where smiling is as likely to kill the characters as sunlight, Pettyfer, Agron and MacAuliffe play relatively smart, well-adjusted teens; meaning they joke around and talk about more than pining for someone they can never be with.  Pettyfer in particular breaks out of the heartthrob mold in the dinner scene with Sarah’s family.  In his relaxed smile, you can feel his warming to that alien feeling of belonging to something greater than himself or Henri.  Indeed, his connection to Sarah—though it’s meant to be romantic—struck me as a sibling bond, or a best friend bond.

I’m not knocking any of the three young leads, but I felt more chemistry between John and Sam.  Sam is such an innocent, and so eaten up by being a social outcast by day and a disappointment to his step-father by night that when John takes him under his wing, I forgot all about the outer space shenanigans.  I was reminded of the James Dean/Natalie Woods/Sal Mineo triangle in Rebel Without a Cause; I’m not sure if Caruso and his writers intended to make this connection or not, but it’s there on the screen.

I have two major gripes about I Am Number Four, though; one minor and one almost crippling.  My first beef is with the look of the Mogadorians.  Apparently, at the end of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, Eric Bana and his Romulan cohorts weren’t destroyed by Spock’s artificial black hole: they were simply flushed into another galaxy, where they grew gills on their faces and forgot to practice dentistry.  Seriously, the Mogadorians look so much like the Romulan space miners—down to the boots-and-trench-coat look and tribal markings across their bald heads—that it’s a wonder Paramount hasn’t filed suit.

I can forgive the aesthetics, though, because as a species, these things are really something.  They gleefully snarl at young children and torture conspiracy theorists by shoving whirring razor spheres down their throats; their leader (Kevin Durand) cracks jokes like a little boy reciting riddles as he sets ants on fire.  The genius of the creatures’ menace is that they don’t really care about being conspicuous: from their point of view, Earth is as good as theirs, so why be subtle?

I can’t let the filmmakers off the hook for the ending, though.  As the movie wound towards the big nighttime laser fight at the high school, I began to get a sinking feeling in my stomach.  While some questions had been answered, others lingered—pretty big ones; I got the feeling that Caruso might be leading me right into a sequel.  I know it’s naïve to think that any movie aimed at a teen audience today could be immune to the Follow-up Factory, but I held out hope.  The movie is such a throwback to action movies of the 80s like The Last Starfighter that part of me believed I could avoid the inevitable I Am Still Number Four.

But, no, the last three minutes of the movie swing that door wide open in the most disgusting and obvious ways imaginable.  John’s dog, who, a mere fifteen minutes earlier, had died saving his master, comes limping out of the woods; tongue wagging, as if he’d just filmed a Snausages commercial.  As John, Sam and Number Six prepare to hit the road in search of the other gifted aliens (leaving Sarah behind for safety), Mark the bully pops up out of absolutely fucking nowhere and makes friends with everybody.  I was just waiting for the Mogadorian commander to return from the dead and tell John that their whole beef with his race was a giant misunderstanding.

Fortunately, the film didn’t do nearly as well last weekend as everyone had hoped, meaning that I may get my wish of I Am Number Four remaining a self-contained film.  I really liked the characters and their adventures while they were happening, but was perfectly fine with leaving them standing in the rubble of the Paradise High football field, standing tall as unknown planetary heroes.

I’d like to close by addressing any Serious Film People who may be reading this.  You really need to get over yourselves.  I can understand watching the previews for I Am Number Four and assuming it would be poorly acted, formulaic garbage.  But I’m puzzled by all the negativity from people who’ve allegedly watched the movie.  This isn’t a matter of taste; I’m talking objectively.  All of the leads perform well; D.J. Caruso demonstrates through his clear and imaginative action scenes why he’s one of the most reliable and underrated genre directors working; and there’s not a drop of the precious, over-it snark that has poisoned high school movies since the dawn of the Age of Juno.

If you’re hung up on the movie’s derivativeness, I suggest reconsidering your love for True Grit, the Oscar darling so devoid of original ideas that it could have been re-branded as a remake of Unforgiven (yes, I know it’s a remake of a John Wayne film).  The issue is not that the movie lifts from other sources, but that it packages its influences together in an entertaining movie that revives disparate mythos for a new audience.  Zack Snyder is set to re-launch the Superman franchise for the third time in 2012; too bad Caruso beat him to the punch.