Sunday, February 27, 2011

Film Review with Robert Mann - I Am Number Four

I Am Number Four **½

The massive financial success of both the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises has prompted movie studios left, right and centre to go on the hunt for the next literary property that they can turn into such an uber box office success as both of those film series. The spoils of this hunt have been a very mixed bag and to date no film has managed to replicate the phenomenal popularity of Harry Potter or Twilight, such wannabe franchise starters as Jumper, Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief and Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant distinctly failing to impress at the box office with the likelihood of any of them actually receiving sequels being slim – even with the possibility of follow ups having being mentioned for both of the former films – and none of them doing much better in terms of a critical response or word of mouth.

And now we have yet another film that is clearly hoping to kick off the next big fantasy franchise but, just like all those aforementioned films, is unlikely to get beyond the first instalment – I Am Number Four. Based on the young adult science fiction novel of the same name by Pittacus Lore, the pen name of authors James Frey and Jobie Hughes, this film found its inspiration in much the same way as all of those other films but with one notable difference in that the studio actually bough the movie rights to the story back in June 2009, more than a year before the book’s release in August 2010. 


This means that DreamWorks Pictures – for whom this is their first film since separating from Paramount Pictures and allying themselves with Disney – decided to go ahead with the film before even knowing whether or not the book itself was going to prove popular. Consequently, one major thing that separates I Am Number Four from the likes of Harry Potter and Twilight is that it does not have the huge following that either of those series has. While the book did spend six weeks on the children’s chapter of The New York Time Best Seller list after it was released in the states last summer, there really isn’t that big a following for it and with this not much of a built in audience for the film, something which is clearly evidenced by the film’s unspectacular performance at the US box office when it opened last week – although this wasn’t helped by a major lack of star power – the cast member who many are probably most likely to recognise is Dianna Agron of Glee fame while leading man Alex Pettyfer, so clearly intended to be this film’s answer to Robert Pattinson, really has changed quite a bit since starring in British films Stormbreaker and Wild Child and Timothy Olyphant, while a recognisable face, has never been an actor to attract much of an audience – weak marketing, an extremely unimaginative title and lacklustre reviews. 


It’s certainly not due to a lack of talent behind the camera, though, that’s for sure. Screenwriters Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, while hardly ranking among the greatest writers in the business, have a lot of experience with action orientated fare aimed at the teen moviegoing audience, their work on TV show Smallville clearly showing this and director D.J. Caruso also has a promising track record, his past films including the well received – both critically and commercially – thrillers Disturbia and Eagle Eye, the trailer for I Am Number Four going as far as to highlight the director’s association with the former. But as has been seen in quite a few films lately, simply having the ingredients for a potentially good film doesn’t necessarily make for a film that is good and I Am Number Four sadly finds itself saddled by the fact that it is targeted at the same teen audience that read the book upon which it is based.

John Smith (Alex Pettyfer) is an extraordinary young man. Despite appearing to be very normal and very human, if a bit of an outcast, he is the fourth of nine alien beings who have escaped from their home world Lorien after their people have been brutally massacred by an evil race of aliens known as the Mogadorians. Now hiding out on Earth and on the run as fugitives, John and the other eight are the last surviving members of their race. Constantly changing his identity, John spends his life moving from one place to the next with his guardian Henri (Timothy Olyphant) but their enemies are closing in and three of his fellow escapees have already been hunted down and killed. 



Moving on once again to a small town after nearly being exposed to the world, John finds his entire life changed when he forms a connection with the latest place he is hiding out after failing to remain invisible at his latest high school following a confrontation with school bully Mark (Jake Abel). Always the new kid with no ties to the past, John decides he doesn’t want to keep running when he finds himself falling in love with fellow outcast Sarah (Dianna Agron) and forming a rare friendship with Sam (Callan McAuliffe), another social outcast who happens to be connected to John in a very unexpected way. 


And, when he finds himself developing special powers known as legacies which give him the ability of telekinesis and of making his hands glow, he learns that he is part of a grand destiny to save Earth from the Mogadorian threat. With his ruthless enemies headed by their brutal Commander (Kevin Durand) closing in on the town, John decides that he will go on the run no longer and takes on his enemies head on. He is not alone, however, as another of his race, the tough and no nonsense Number Six (Teresa Palmer) who has even more incredible powers than he does, shows up to give him a fighting chance. But can just two of the nine really stand up to the power of their enemies?

There is a lot about I Am Number Four that is very familiar. No doubt a lot of the blame for this can really be levelled at the book upon which the film is based as much as the film itself but this really doesn’t change the fact that, despite some key differences, the plot is very similar to Jumper and the action is also somewhat reminiscent of that film at times, not to mention baring similarities to numerous other similar movies. Even if everything didn’t feel so familiar, however, it wouldn’t really change the fact that pretty much everything about the film is extremely so-so.


Throwing us straight into the story without a proper introduction or any real back story, the film reveals everything rather mundanely in a piece of voiceover exposition and the plot really meanders, the plotting seeming on the level of an average unremarkable episode of Smallville as opposed to a Hollywood movie. The story here has very little depth and also proves to be rather clichéd, particularly with regard to the standing up to the bullies aspect and the romance between John and Sarah, and the way everything about the film screams franchise starter proves slightly frustrating, especially the way that the ending leaves things wide open for a sequel which may never come. 


The characterisation is also rather weak, which of course means that character based scenes prove to be somewhat uninteresting and the generally mediocre dialogue – Sam saying “My entire childhood was like an episode of The X-Files” for instance – doesn’t help with this. There again, it shouldn’t be forgotten who this film has really been made for. This is clearly a film aimed at the teen mindset with little regard for more mature and demanding viewers and much of the dialogue – and pretty much everything else in the film – reflects this, for example Number Six saying “Red Bull’s for pussies” after getting a power up from John and Sam saying “I play a lot of X-Box” after taking out an alien baddie with a laser gun. 


The acting follows the writing in kind with everyone being generally decent but absolutely no one standing out. Alex Pettyfer seems cast for his good looks first and foremost – clearly intended as the hunk for the ladies with an obligatory and completely gratuitous shirtless scene obviously featuring – his performance being perfectly proficient but largely unremarkable, while Dianna Agron is little more than a romantic interest but proves to be a pretty good one at least and the chemistry between the two is pretty convincing. As for the other players, Timothy Olyphant is giving very little to do, Jake Abel is just the typical run of the mill high school bully, Callan McAuliffe is just an average geek/outcast type character and the baddies prove to be extremely underwhelming. 


Out of everyone, the most notable performer is undoubtedly Teresa Palmer who looks and acts badass in her all action role even though her screen time is pretty much limited to the film’s climax. While, for a long while there is little action to be found, things liven up a lot as the film approaches this laser riddled and giant alien creature stampeding climax that, for all the film’s flaws, does prove to be rather exciting. That said, however, it is unlikely to satisfy the action cravings of anyone looking for something that truly stands out. The film really lacks the flair that D.J. Caruso displayed in Disturbia and Eagle Eye and often seems quite cheap – the aliens, of course, look completely human and the baddies look only slightly different from human, although at least alien enough to clearly recognise them as alien and they are quite creepy looking – the visual effects being competent but not really wowing us enough or offering anything we haven’t seen before many times. 


Also, the opening action sequence, showing the hunting down of Number Three by the Mogadorians, is far too dark to really make out what is going on and is rather lacklustre anyway. This is rather indicative of the overall look and feel of the film, the visual effects and action sequences here likely enough to entertain younger less demanding viewers but less likely to be appreciated by anyone who has seen the countless other movies that this one seems to be imitating. So, extremely generic, totally predictable and entirely forgettable, this film is definitely not in the same league as Harry Potter or Twilight, or even Jumper come to think of it. As for the rating, I Am Number Four is not a four in my book.

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Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)

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