I Am Number 4: Finally, James Frey's Real Autobiography
Well this is just disappointing. I spent the entire morning before going to the movie thinking of all the permutations of “I am number 2” that I could use in the headline to this review, and then the damned thing wasn’t half bad. I cultivate low expectations in order not to be disappointed and instead I get this, the no win scenario in which I’m disappointed by not being disappointed enough, but don’t enjoy the film enough to make up for it.
The novel version of I Am Number 4 was the next logical step for James Frey’s writing career. An artist’s natural progression throughout history has been to start with passing fiction off as biography and then to move on to adolescent half baked science fiction with a coauthor under a shared pen name. The book managed to sell the movie rights a year before it was published, so that filming actually began 3 months before any of the public had actually read the book. That’s why they’ve managed to put out a film version only six months after the book hit stores. The novel spent six weeks on the children’s subdivision of the New York Times best seller list. I have no idea if the novel is actually any good, but congratulations anyway universe. I didn’t think it was possible for me to be more cynical about the film and fiction industries, but there are always stories like this to prove me wrong.
The film is dreadfully competent, wrapping decent enough film making around a plot that has been lifted piecemeal from a dozen other science fiction stories. But it’s put together just well enough, that it’s actually entertaining. It’s infinitely derivative and has not the slightest spark of originality to it, which makes it quite infuriating to review. I have a strong urge to choke the life out of a film that takes scene after scene from other films, yet with every cliché it rolls out, it sidesteps the pitfalls just enough to avoid making the audience roll its eyes.
The film version of I Am Number 4 follows the same basic story as the book, although one assumes that the differences may be because the screenwriter was working off an early outline of the novel, as opposed to necessarily being deliberate departures from the story. There are a group of nine alien teenagers in hiding on Earth (Roswell). They’re the last survivors of their world and have superhuman powers (Superman). The invaders who destroyed their world have come to Earth and are hunting them (innumerable other science fiction stories). For no explained reason, the alien kids can only be killed in a particular order, which is why with the first three dead it is so titularly relevant that “John Smith” is number four.
The lifting from other stories isn’t just on the level of the broad strokes. John insists on going to high school in order to be normal (because of course he does), except that it actually manages to hit an emotional chord with the simple fact that he wants to because he’s lonely. He falls in love with a local girl who is both implausibly hot and an outcast like him (because of course he does), yet the film actually takes the time to show them genuinely connecting and sharing real moments instead of just expecting us to take brooding and lip chewing as love. He fights with his Olyphant over leaving yet another town behind (because of course he does), but it’s redeemed by the fact that the actors manage to pull off genuine father(figure)/son affection and John resigns himself to the necessity without being an enormous CW twat about it. Faster than you can say Ralph Macchio, John gets jumped by the local football assholes (because of course he does), but it feels right because the film is just skillful enough at douche painting to lend some catharsis to John hospitalizing them, and just nuanced enough to make him feel guilty instead of cocky. The entire film proceeds this way, with a fill-in-the-blanks structure just barely saved at every turn by a competent attention to detail.
The biggest problem with the film is that more than anything it feels like an extra long television pilot more than the tent pole of a new franchise. While it does a decent enough job with leaving enough mysteries to set up for another film, it feels like a story that would have been far better served developing over the course of many episodes. And there’s a fairly obvious explanation for that once you start looking at the credits. The screenplay is by Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, and Marti Noxon, which explains a lot about why so much of the film gave off an unhealthy deja vu of Smallville and Buffy. It also makes some sense out of the film’s odd grafting of genuine emotion onto derivative cliché. They were handed a generic skeleton without much flexibility for change, and layered on as much genuine flesh as they could. And DJ Caruso is just competent enough of a director to not strip out of the script what worked.
Worth seeing in theaters? Not if you’ve got something better to do, but it sure beats Martin Lawrence in a fat suit.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.