Apparently UFOs are the new black. Count how many movies this year that feature aliens bringing their intergalactic scrums to earth:Cowboys & Aliens, Green Lantern, Thor, Transformers 3, Battle: Los Angeles, and Super 8. And then there’s I Am Number Four, which not only beats them all to the punch, but also sets the bar fairly high for sci-fi fisticuffs. It’s a strong summer movie released in the dead of winter.
It stars the soon-to-be-major-heartthrob Alex Pettyfer, who will next be targeting the Twilight audience in the chick flick Beastly. In I Am Number Four, Pettyfer plays a teenage Superman-like space refugee hiding on Earth under the presumed name John Smith along with his guardian, Henri (Timothy Olyphant). He is the fourth among nine superpowered survivors who are being sequentially wiped out by some really mean intergalactic pillagers called Mogadorians, who look like more grotesque versions of the Romulans from Star Trek. John’s number may be up, but he has some bigger issues to deal with, like fitting in at high school and courting his first love, Sarah (Glee’s Dianna Agron).
I Am Number Four certainly plays it by the numbers. Teenage outsider attends a small-town high school, befriends the nerd (a wonderful Callan McAuliffe), catches the attention of the independent-minded hottie, and gains the ire of the quarterback bully (Jake Abel). It’s a superhero movie by way of John Hughes.
While many attempts of this kind have failed, I Am Number Foursucceeds. Neither the galactic adventure nor the high school woes feel tacked on or given the short shrift, with both facets of the plot working organically as a whole. It never feels generic, even though it’s preceded by the likes of Smallville and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Much credit goes to a cast and a screenplay that don’t regurgitate archetypes but create well-rounded characters we can root for.
It helps that you get scene-stealers like the ever-reliable Timothy Olyphant, who gives the elderly guardian role his typical sardonic spunk, and Kevin Durand, whose Mogadorian leader seems to be attempting a career at stand-up comedy with whip-smart quips about human society.
The movie certainly has its flaws, like a scene where a gang of punks manages to mastermind an ambush complete with night vision goggles. But even that scene is so tightly directed and played with energy and gusto that you tend to forget the senselessness of it.
The visual effects are a little wanting. It seems producer Michael Bay was holding out in this department, as if not wanting this movie to outshine his Transformers 3 this summer. But maybe that's to the film's benefit. The action, with no shortage of momentum, fares well, since it doesn't completely rely on the CGI department and compensates with a little old-school imagination instead.
What’s most interesting about I Am Number Four is how it works as a guy’s answer to Twilight. It’s not just a matter of how these films rewrite adolescent issues into the fantasy genre; it’s how they both work together to re-inscribe traditional gender roles.
As much as the Twilight movies might insist that Bella is an independent and strong figure, she’s still a rather vulnerable character. Bella’s a classical female archetype, trying to decide which powerful man (the vampire or the werewolf) she would rather canoodle with. That’s right: Twilight’s simply reasserting that a girl’s most prominent decision in life is who she marries. The guys are still the main feature.
Meanwhile, a guy movie would never relinquish such authority to women. So in I Am Number Four, the guy is still numero uno. He’s still the one with the superpowers. His role as the main feature will never be usurped. Though he meets another superpowered female (behold Teresa Palmer as the sexy and deadly Number Six), we can rest assured he will not be outdone by her in the series’ coming installments. She’ll just be another fetishistic object for him to consider as an alternative to that sweet girl next door.
So despite the fact that I Am Number Four has cross-gender appeal as a tender romance with a sci-fi backdrop, it still adheres to traditional masculine fantasies. There’s no bone thrown to theTwilight-ers here.
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