Monday, February 21, 2011

Exactly What It Appears To Be, I Am Number Four Establishes The Next Science Fiction Franchise Well!

The Good: Good story, Surprisingly good acting, Moments of character
The Bad: Familiar aspects, Some details made unclear, Big special effects battle portion.
The Basics: It's Buffy The Vampire Slayer meets Heroes as I Am Number Four attempts to establish itself as the next big cinematic franchise for young adults.

Hollywood is in crisis right now. You might not have heard about it, but it is. Hollywood is looking long-term and it is flailing about like a behemoth struggling for air and prey. The fundamental problem it is experiencing is this: the cash cows are leaving the stable and there is nothing on the horizon to take their place. With the conclusion of the Harry Potter franchise imminent and the end of The Twilight Saga similarly near, Hollywood is looking for the next big thing. The commercial failure of The Last Airbender (reviewed here!) left Hollywood without a successor. What will get the late teens through thirty year-olds to the theaters outside movies based on comic books now? Enter I Am Number Four and you have your answer.

I Am Number Four is based upon a novel series and right off the bat, I want to mention that I had not read any of the novels, nor did I do any research on the direction of the franchise before seeing the film. This is a very pure review of the new film I Am Number Four, so when I reference it as the beginning of a franchise that is because the movie felt entirely like that is what it was trying to be. This is the opening act of a larger story and it was good at that. The most simple distillation of the movie and the franchise is that I Am Number Four is Buffy The Vampire Slayer meets Heroes. That's all there is to it.

In the jungle, two people are killed by an alien beast and its handlers, which segues awkwardly to the life of Daniel, a young man on the West Coast who seems to be living a carefree life. But the death in the jungle follows that night with the appearance of another brand on Daniel's leg and the psychic message that the aliens are coming for him next. In a progression of alien kills, he is the fourth intended victim and he and his protector, Henri, leave the West Coast for new lives in Paradise, Ohio. In Paradise, Daniel becomes John Smith and Henri - his protector who poses as his father - set up new lives for themselves.

While Paradise initially seems like just another place to hide out with John getting into the usual high school dramas, it quickly turns into something else. While John befriends Sam, the local geek, and Sarah - a Senior with a camera and an inquisitive nature, Henri investigates groups nearby that seem to have intimate knowledge of both the surviving Loriens and the Mogadorian hunters who threaten their lives. John tries to avoid the bullying popular Mark while Henri springs a trap that alerts the Mogadorians to the presence of their prey in Paradise. As John learns to use his newfound talents - superpowers bestowed upon him by his alien heritage - the Mogadorians close in on him and threaten all he cares about.

I Am Number Four is sufficiently complex to both feel like a decent franchise and to keep the viewer engaged through the entire movie. Number Six, for example, appears for two teaser scenes where her legacy (superpowers) are hinted at before becoming an integral part of the film's final conflict. She is teased, but one has the impression she is incredibly important in the subsequent works. Similarly, at the outset of the film, a shapeshifting lizard is introduced and the viewer has to wait to see what side John's dog (as it becomes) is actually on.

The movie, then, has to stand most on a lot of exposition. The viewer is told almost immediately that Number Four knows he is an alien and that he is a hunted Lorien. I Am Number Four tells the story of the critical moment in his life when Henri shares with him the information he did not have before this point; that he has legacies which will develop and which he might use to defeat the Mogadorians, especially in conjunction with the few other fated Loriens (there were nine total). So, in the course of the film, while John goes through the motions of re-establishing a high school identity, he is working to understand his newfound super strength, super speed, enhanced dexterity and the glowing hands which allow him to manipulate objects and fields from afar. Number Four essentially has the Force and he uses it to levitate objects, light things up and push people and things. It's a pretty funky ability and it is cool when he has the chance to fight alongside Number Six.

But I Am Number Four is far from flawless. Going into the film, I saw so many conceits in the setup that anyone who knows the hero's classical journey knows that John will lose Henri and that this is the story of him coming to accept a truth larger than himself. There is an obvious bit to the film that is not unpleasant, but is utterly unsurprising. Add to that, the whole order in which the Mogadorians must kill the Loriens is not satisfactorily explained. The fact that Number Six was once within their thrall enough that her protector could be killed, yet she was not taken out, is not convincing. But her survival allows her to play the Faith to Four's Buffy.

What also works in general is the acting. Dianna Agron plays Sarah and fans of Glee (season 1 reviewed here!) will be pleased to see her in this role, though most will suspect that her portrayal of Sarah would be identical to any form of pre-Season 1 flashbacks of Quinn that Glee might ever produce. Teresa Palmer masterfully makes Number Six a convincing badass, just as Jake Abel's bullying Mark is convincing. In fact, what is far less convincing than Abel playing the jerk is the unexplained (there is a reason, but it is not as plausible as it is executed in the film) turnaround in his final scene. Timothy Olyphant is suitably wonderful as Henri and the viewer buys immediately that he is a character with skills and a deep sense of honor and obligation to John. Callan McAuliffe plays the geeky kid just fine.

But it is Alex Pettyfer who is saddled with selling I Am Number Four. He does it. More than just good looking as John - his introduction into the film as the jockish jetskier initially set the hairs on the back of my neck arising - Pettyfer is given moments where he is able to shine in surprisingly distinctive ways. Key among these is a moment where John is sitting at Sarah's house, silently listening to Sarah's family and the viewer can tell that John is longing for the simplicity of the family. That is the power of Pettyfer's performance.

In fact, I Am Number Four only suffers when it tries to be like every other science fiction or fantasy franchise. When the final battle occurs, the effects are like pretty much every big comic book movie series and that is a disappointment. By that point, the viewer wanted to expect more of the film and its degeneration into the obviously familiar is disappointing. But that is the only real disappointment in the movie. The rest is exactly what it appears to be; this is the establishment of a new franchise and here at the beginning there are enough elements to it that make it seem perfectly viable.

For other works featuring Dianna Agron, please check out my reviews of:
Glee - The 3-D Concert Movie
Glee - Season Two, Volume One
Glee - The Complete First Season
Glee - Season One, Volume One: The Road To Sectionals
Heroes - Season Two
Veronica Mars - Season Three


For other film reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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