Monday, February 21, 2011

Lucky Number Four

These days, I think every author of teen books is trying to replicate the monumental success of Twilight. Why shouldn't they? Besides the fact that author Stephenie Meyer's name has become nearly on par with that of Harry Potter scribe J.K. Rowling when discussing books for teens, she could literally fill a swimming pool with small bills and take a dip, so well do her books sell. Even the final book in the series - Breaking Dawn, which many FANS admit was a ridiculous mess - sold over a million copies just in the first twenty-four hours of sales. On top of that, the money generated from producing the movies based on the vampire/werewolf romance novels have been hugely successful, and made stars out of leads Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart. Sure, teen novels have been turned into films before, but not until Harry Potter and Twilight have they been so amazingly profitable. And if you're a production studio adapting popular series of books like these to the big screen, you have a franchise that can potentially make you guaranteed money for years to come. That brings us to I Am Number Four, based on the book by Pittacus Lore, the pen name of authors James Frey (he of A Million Little Pieces fame) and Jobie Hughes. Though the first book in this series was only released last August, the rights to the film had been purchased nearly a year prior by Michael Bay and Dreamworks pictures, hoping that the planned six-part book series would make for a popular film franchise. I don't know how that will work out for them, but I was interested enough in the premise to check out this film, even if I know I'm well past the age of the target audience.

So this is small-town America, huh? Looks dirty
I Am Number Four introduces us to the Loriens, aliens who live among us and are the last survivors of an extinct race. There are nine special teens, who were created to protect their home planet from other aliens, the warmongering Mogadorians, but never got the chance. Now separated and hiding on Earth, one teen (Alex Pettyfer) begins to develop the powers needed to fight these evil creatures and protect his new home from possible invasion. The Mogadorians have followed these escapees to our planet and hunted down three of their prey, with Number Four now in their sights.

This is going to make some things... difficult
When I saw Michael Bay's name pop up in the opening credits, I knew I was going to see a lot of special effects and explosions. He does demand things to be awesome, after all. I also expected to be put to sleep by uninteresting characters and stretches of boring exposition. I was right about the first part. Boy, was I wrong about the second. While the film has enough action and demolitions to excite at least three of your five senses (especially if you manage to see it in an IMAX theater), I was quite surprised to be greeted with a story that didn't insult my intelligence and characters I could actually sympathize with and enjoy. That isn't to say that the story was PERFECT. In the beginning there's a bit of voice-over to explain the highly descriptive background, and I was afraid there would be much more to come. Thankfully, after setting up the tale the voice overs take permanent hiatus until the film's conclusion, which made sense. Even if they could have avoided using them at all, the story probably needed these monologues to fully integrate the viewer into the film's narrative. Besides that, the film actually does a good job weaving a plot that uses a lot of tiny clues and things left unsaid to actually help move the story forward. Director D.J. Caruso is still learning to be a big-time Hollywood director, but it's a step in the right direction. The alien romance story, however, being between an inhuman outsider a young mortal woman just reeks of Twilight stink, not really a huge surprise but disappointing in its lack of originality.

Officer Jimmy had two days left until retirement
The acting here is much better than I would have imagined. England-born Pettyfer has plenty of experience playing teen novel heroes at this point. He's been Alex Rider in Stormbreaker, based on the book series by Anthony Horowitz, as well as the lead in this year's Beastly, based on Alex Flynn's reimagining of Beauty and the Beast. Just as 2010 unveiled Garrett Hedlund as a young talent to watch out for, Pettyfer might be one of a few names (including Olivia Wilde and Saoirse Ronan) to keep an eye on once the dust that is 2011 has settled. As the young outsider who has been constantly on the move since arriving on our planet, Four is tired of running and wishes he could just settle down like a normal human being. Pettyfer does a great job in this coming-of-age role, managing to act enough like a normal teen to fool many of the characters around him but different enough to make sure we realize he doesn't actually belong there. Timothy Olyphant adds a lot of character as Four's mentor Henri, a warrior from their home planet dedicated to protecting him at all costs. Some of the best scenes are the verbal interplay between Olyphant and the younger Pettyfer, with Olyphant's mentor role often getting the better of these exchanges. Other solid performances belong to Callan McAuliffe as Four's nerdy friend Sam, Teresa Palmer as a young woman hunting down Four for reasons unknown, and Lost's Kevin Durand as the leader of the evil Mogadorians. The only one who doesn't quite live up to the rest of the talent is Glee's Dianaa Agron as Sarah, Four's love interest. While the character, a former popular girl turned outsider and shunned by those who she once called friends, is interesting enough, she just doesn't quite get all the nuances of the part to fully carry it off. Credit for not making her a useless maiden in distress, though; Sarah is a committed young woman determined to live life her way, and the relationship between her and Four is realistic and honest.

Yes, you came at a bad time
The film doesn't skimp on the fireworks, and many of the inherent effects, including mutations, energy blasts and transformations look simply amazing on the big screen. Since I Am Number Four probably could have been transformed into a 3D film, like so many short-sighted action films before it, it was thankfully decided to bypass the concept in this release. 3D has been such an overused technology since James Cameron reintroduced it in 2009, and for every Piranha 3D or Resident Evil Afterlight that makes it work, there are titles like Green Hornet and Clash of the Titans for which there was no need or even competent implementation. It's an expensive format that costs millions more to make and costs movie watchers twice as much to see in the theaters, so time will tell just how much a game-changer 3D has truly become. Until then it's almost more brave to make this kind of film WITHOUT the 3D label and declare that you don't need all that extra glitz to create an experience worth watching.

Is The Hunger Games next for Pettyfer?
While the story is really no different from teen entertainment like Twilight or the old WB/UPN show Roswell, the fact remains that I Am Number Four is a by-the-numbers teen action film done well enough to be a great experience. It lacks some subtlety, but that's on par for a film financed by Bay. It's currently my #1 for 2011, though I doubt it will have the staying power to remain the whole year on the list. I still question whether a viable franchise can be built out of an unknown quanitity like this. Twilight was in book form for three years before a film was put out. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone took four years between book and film releases. The point I'm trying to make is that you can't force a franchise into existence; sometimes it's those happy mistakes and unforseen events that create the built-in audience you want in a motion picture. When you try to force it, you end up with disappointing returns because there's not enough teenagers giving a damn about your film to spend the money or time, as evidenced by this past weekend's box office. I may not be a Twilight fan, but even I can see how the vampire series made such an impact while Four has struggled out the gate.

1 comment:

kawana said...


This is too funny! I actually saw this movie this afternoon and loved it! And I think your review is right on - although, I do enjoy Dianna Agron (mostly because she is on "Glee"), but I can see what you are seeing about her maybe not being quite up to task with the others.

I loved the Olyphant character and thought Pettyfer did a good job. Seeing the film made me want to read the book (saw one of my students with it) and seek out the others (which I now know I would have to wait for - even though they are cowritten by James Frey - shudder). I also enjoyed all the wonderful effects and explosions, courtesy of Michael Bay.

A good, right on review and this is definitely my #1 so far this year......