I Am Number Four was one that got away from me during its theatrical run. That is, I immediately knew from the preview that this was the kind of movie that looked as though it would fit my interest in new and innovative science fiction. But, I missed it. Not sure how…probably traveling or had other big commitments, but, ultimately, I didn’t catch it in theatres.
So, through the magic of Netflix (how did we live without that), I saw it just before writing this.
The film begins with an attention-getting attack sequence in which someone (we don’t yet know who) is hunted down and killed by an alien on what appears to the the African continent. We quickly cut to the Florida Keys, and learn that the person who just died was Number 3, an alien among a group of aliens that are being systematically hunted down and killed by a race of alien predators because of their abilities. The protagonist of the movie, of course, is Number 4 (played by Alex Pettyfer), and is on the run as the rest of them are. Number 4, however, is also busy being a teenager and trying to fit in as his warrior guardian rushes him on the move when he manifests strange abilities, whisking them away form the tropics and into rural Ohio, whilst scrubbing any trace of Number 4 from the Internet. The issue is that Number 4 (who is now dubbed “John Doe” as a cover identity to make him “invisible”) is busy coming of age in his teenage years here on earth, complete with a love interest, played by Dianna Argon, whom I am very happy to see in something other than the disaster that is Glee, and to appreciate her ability to actually do some substantive acting.
Thus, it was about thirty minutes into the movie when I began to be disappointed, feeling as though I was lost in a derivative of Smallville. This was supposed to be new and innovative science fiction, darnit, not another teenage “rescue the girl with my super powers” drama. Except, despite my disappointment, I was found myself continuing to watch with interest, cheering for the hero and unable to look away as the good vs. evil fight to survive escalated to a climax.
That was when I realized that I wasn’t disappointed at all, once I began to view the movie for what it is: the cinematic equivalent of a YA novel. This isn’t an adult film. There’s nothing new here as far as the plot, the character development is sufficient but not particularly erudite, and the movie as a whole isn’t complex in any way. The backstory is filled in during quick expositional dialogue between the characters, but somehow doesn’t leave the viewer wanting. We just understand that this is where we are coming into the narrative and keep rolling with the punches, because its the punches of the now (both emotional and supernatural) that matter most for this hour and 40-odd minutes.
I Am Number Four is not adult science fiction. It is YA science fiction, and it is very, very good YA science fiction.
Watch this expecting cool new near-future science fiction ideas along the lines of Push or Next, and you’ll be disappointed. Watch this expecting a coming of age, YA novel on film, and you’ll be very pleasantly surprised, because that’s exactly what this film is intended to be. The genre is fulfilled nicely: good vs. evil conflict, the hero growing up and standing for what is right at the expense of himself, the discovery that we cannot stand alone, and the pledge to always love the girl for whom he has inexplicably fallen for the rest of his life as he rides off into further adventures with a wide-open story arc that begs for a sequel (please, Hollywood, wait until you’re doing better than you have been with sequels as of late if you intend to give us one).
What’s particularly surprising is that the film is produced by Michael Bay. I say surprising because the action sequences are gripping and big in signature Bay style, but never once overwhelming (and, honestly, not even that big considering Bay’s usual fare). In fact, they compliment the narrative perfectly, and character development is never once overshadowed by the battles. The writers have inserted action sequences with excellent judgement, and the viewer never feels that they are there without good reason. That, from a fellow writer’s perspective, is a mark of good screen-writing.
Combined with this good judgement are excellent performances by all of the actors involved. You hate the bad guys and cheer for the good guys, but both are more complex and three-dimensional than that, and you feel as though you’ve come to know the characters through the actors’ performances by the time the credits roll. Further, the end is redemptive as Number 4 recognizes his calling, eschews his childish ways, and takes seriously his responsibility to live up to his gifting.
As I said before, the film does leave one a bit reminiscent of Smallville, and some of Number 6’s fight sequences smack of vintage Buffy the Vampire Slayer. None of this, though, happens in a bad way, and the movie honestly never attempts to do something new or daring. The goal here is to tell an excellent YA science fiction coming-of-age tale, one that will broaden the viewer’s horizons and leave you feeling the glow of redemptive positivity at the end. This is the sort of movie I hope my daughter enjoys when she is old enough to enjoy such storytelling.
I’m surprised that the film wasn’t billed for young adults, but I’ll just consider it a chance to find a hidden gem. I Am Number Four was as excellent as I had hoped, but in a different way than I had hoped. If this was one that got away from you in its theatrical run as it was for me, place it in your Netflix cue now. In fact, bump it to the top. This is just a basic, really good movie that you’ll be glad you (and your children) watched.