Unknown/I Am Number Four

Saw two movies this weekend: Unknown and I Am Number Four. Both are mediocre films which occasionally flicker with some promise, but both are ultimately too captured by Hollywood cliché to amount to more than journeymen pictures.

Warning: spoilers below the fold.

In Unknown, the characters reside in that special Hollywood world where all the women with which the male lead character seriously interacts are a good 20-30 years younger than he is. Not to mention all model-beautiful (and, in this instance, blonde). In the same world, characters feel that special attraction to each other not because of anything said or done, or because it is particularly believable that the 20ish woman would instantly have an affinity for the 60 year-old man in front of her, but simply because, well, it is just the way it is supposed to be. I give credit to Liam Neeson for being a solid leading man and lifting this picture a bit, but there is a point where credibility strains to the point of breaking even for him. If Liam Neeson is believable in his role, then why can’t someone that is, say, within ten years of his age, be believable as his wife?

In Unknown, they also live in a world of those impossibly dumb, overly precious flashbacks that have absolutely nothing to do with how life is lived – or remembered. Bonus points for including the flashback of the shower sex, which apparently a lot of screenwriters and directors consider to be the most erotic and memorable of sexual interactions (either that or it provides them with the most convenient method to show sex without having to show any actual sex – steam is the PG-13 rating’s best friend).

They live in a world where it isn’t enough to have a stunningly beautiful immigrant girl struggling to make it in Berlin – nope, she also has to be an awesome artist that is reluctant to show her most personal work (Three Days of the Condor alert!). Where multiple characters also suddenly morph into incredible stunt drivers out of thin air and no one thinks twice about it. Where people can always find people in the nick of time, no matter where they may be, if they just keep driving in the general direction where the person they are looking for was last seen headed.

Where the villains do not act on their intent to kill the hero without taking the hero out of confinement and taking the time to explain it all to the hero – just so both the hero and the audience will know what is going on because we all know the hero, of course, will break free from the confinement of the stunningly stupid villains (who are, of course, pitched as the ultimate in super-spies to explain their extraordinary abilities just mere minutes before they show themselves to be utter buffoons that can’t manage to kill someone that they have literally already knocked out). Extra credit for the additional Hollywood cliché of having the villain actually acknowledge out loud that there is not really any reason for him to reveal it all right before he, you know, reveals it all – it is like having a character look at the audience to say, “I know this is stupid, but, what the hell, this is a movie and we couldn’t think of anything smarter.”

They live in a world where someone is identified as an “elite assassin” without everyone cracking up laughing at the use of the term “elite assassin.” Even if someone is an “elite assassin,” do they actually call themselves that? I think only a non-elite assassin would. This is also a world where fights are staged in the dark, if for no other reason than to emphasize just how disorienting the action editing is, which makes it impossible to see what is going on or, sadly, to be able to even root for whichever colorless mass is flying around that you might prefer to win.

In I Am Number Four, they live in a world where even beautiful people that don’t quite look of high school age and have great fashion skills or incredible athletic gifts are horribly shunned as the ultimate geeks in high school. They live in a world where the filmmakers are nonetheless so afraid that anyone might think their hero is anything but totally awesome that they include an annoying, extraneous scene at the beginning of the hero showing off his toned body while he does incredible jet-ski feats, showing up on shore where he is treated as the coolest kid in school (and landing the hottest girl on the beach) – only to ask us to accept him as a misfit at his next school (Why? Didn’t you just tell us he’s totally awesome? Just because, dammit!) mere minutes later.

They live in a world where people fall in love merely by looking longingly at each other from a distance – and, no, not in a stalker kind of way, but in a true love is great kind of way. They live in a world where it isn’t enough to have a stunningly beautiful girl struggling to make it in high school – nope, she also has to be an awesome artist that is reluctant to show her most personal work (Three Days of the Condor alert!). This is a movie where people insist that they do not want to draw attention to themselves, only to have them (or other like-minded characters) do things sure to draw attention to themselves. Somewhere deep inside the movie there is a story about how hard it is to remain private and isolated in a world where everyone carries cameras and wants to put what they capture with them on the Internet, but that commentary never comes out.

They live in a world where villains in the story manage to avoid attention from people despite being the kind of beings that would most certainly stand out in a crowd. The villains are designed to look intimidating and scary, which apparently is more important than having them look believable. They live in a world where the bad guys speak in a kind of “evil-ese,” that special language where the bad guys say nothing but mean, sadistic things as they revel in their evil-ness for no point other than that they love being evil so much.

They live in a world where dogs don’t die – why, because they’re too cute to do that to an audience. They live in a world where trucks get smashed to smithereens, only to reappear as if it has never been touched around ten minutes later. This is a movie where a sheriff shows up at the hero’s house for some questioning, only it never seems to come up that the hero and his guardian are blatantly squatting in a foreclosed house. The people in this movie live in a world where characters, both major and minor, do not know certain things for no other reason than that the filmmakers do not want the audience to know those things, or they do not want the audience to think about those things. If it is totally nonsensical that the characters would not know those things, so be it!

They also live in a world where it isn’t creepy at all for a teenage boy to inform the girl he’s been on maybe two dates with that he is now genetically incapable of loving anyone else the rest of his life, and we also aren’t supposed to think that’s kind of more of a commitment than any teenage girl should really be able – or willing – to make. They live in a world where, if your parents stuck together without a divorce, everyone’s happy and well-adjusted, but if you happen to have a step-parent, then let the unhappiness and nastiness ensue!

Oh, and they also live in that special Hollywood world where people wearing leather swagger away from massive explosions behind them in slow motion (without flinching!) as they put on their sunglasses and head towards their – of frigging course – red Ducati motorcycle! This kind of shot has been widely mocked for years – did director D.J. Caruso include it merely as a joke? This is, finally, also a world where fights are staged in the dark, if for no other reason than to emphasize just how disorienting the editing is, which makes it impossible to see what is going on or, sadly, to be able to even root for whichever colorless mass is flying around that you might prefer to win.

While both Unknown and I Am Number Four are marginally acceptable films, they are so stubbornly mired in cliché – and overly safe choices by the directors and screenwriters – that they never rise above mediocrity. They are the kind of movies that might be thrilling for 8 year old kids that lack much movie savvy. Everyone else, however, will know what is coming at every turn – and may even get a few chuckles out of the clichés. These are also movies that suggest directors almost defiantly unwilling to take any risk. From casting to shot selection to editing to cinematography (bright is bad! dark is good, even if it makes it hard to see what is going on!), these filmmakers do not want to stick their necks out to make better movies. As a result, they make thoroughly forgettable ones.

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