I Am Number Four is an amalgamation of every conceivable snare for both the male and female teenage animal. With thematic and visual references to classic teen-angst romances such as Rebel Without A Cause and the contemporary paranormal young-love phenomenon The Twilight Saga, as well as a third act infusion of the Michael Bay-brand action, I Am Number 4 shamelessly grasps for every last leaf on the young-adult movie money tree.
Using a sci-fi (rather than paranormal) template as the backdrop for the story, the film attempts to appeal to the boys, and distinguish itself from the popular made-for-girls romances of the day, such as The Vampire Diaries and, of course, the aforementioned Twilight. Though the film does take advantage of certain romantic conceits found in the paranormal genre — for example the biologically-compelled faithfulness of perfectly constructed men.
I Am Number Four tells the tale of Number 4/John Smith, the fourth of nine alien children who were forced to flee their home planet of Lorien after it was brutally ravaged by the evil (and wretchedly unattractive) Mogadorians. Herein lies the film’s first moral lesson to the youth of the world: Bad folks = ugly, good folks = Abercrombie & Fitch, no guess work required.
The “Mogs” must kill each of the nine children in numerical order (for arbitrary reasons) before the children can manifest their “legacies” (super-powers) and utilize them to stop the Mogs’ attempt take over the Earth (a hostile takeover which is being attempted, once again, for what appears to be arbitrary reasons). You would think the Mogs would be reveling in their recent conquer of Lorien, but no.
Number Four/John Smith played by Alex Pettyfer – truly one of the most gorgeous young men the British Isles have ever produced – has chosen this moment to claim his independence from his mentor/protector Henri, played by Timothy Olyphant. The threat of immanent death, the destruction of a second planet, and failing to fulfill the promise of his destiny, is seemingly not enough motivation for John to discourage a cute girl from taking his photo (repeatedly) and posting it on her website for all the world (and the Mogadorians) to see.
The shutter-bug in question is a recent member of the outsiders portion of the high-school populace. Sarah, played by Glee’s Dianna Agron, is no ordinary nerd, however. No, she is the coveted cheerleader-turned-hispter-artist, who is too deep for the superficiality of high school (kind of like her character on Glee). She even comes equipped with an array of 35 mm cameras with which to shoot her damning portraits, a knit cap to demonstrate her superior sense of suburban-bohem, and perfect beauty – lest we forget what is really important (please refer to Number 4’s lesson one for the youth).
Sarah has a hangover from her days with the “in” crowd, in the form of an over-zealous ex-boyfriend. Guess which sport he plays? Hint, it’s not figure skating. Leaving no cliche unmolested — it’s football. Of course he and his gang of stereotypical Midwest gombas harass the school geek, who our gallant Number Four (shockingly) takes it upon himself to defend.
Sam (Callan McAuliffe), the geek in question, is relentlessly teased due to his father’s belief in, and discovery of, the Lorien alien species. Four quickly becomes best friends with Sam (the geek) and falls in love with Sarah (the sexually serene) via the magic of the movie-montage. Lending itself to the time-lapsed love story is Four’s (previously-mentioned) biological imperative to love one, and only one, woman forever... It seems that it is not enough to fall in love anymore – now a romance must guarantee the happily-ever-after via the genetic imprisonment of the boy. “Lorien’s don’t love like the humans,” you see. Apparently this is the bone being thrown to the young adult girls in the audience who might otherwise be somewhat concerned about following their hearts into alien Armageddon.
For the boys, there is a second gorgeous blond female character – a hot girl who kicks mad “Mog” butt and straddles a motorcycle (yep). Six, played by the sizzling Teresa Palmer (Lorien either did not create unattractive people, or did not allow them survive their global Apocalypse), has been on the trail of Four and the “Mogs” in an attempt to bring the fight to the villains. Fortunately Six arrives just in time for the most exiting portion of the film, a genuinely well-construed and entertaining end action sequence in which, in true teen fantasy style, the High-School is wrecked, and entire the football field is destroyed. Cue the end credits.
Despite the ludicrously manipulative story structure, the young actors deliver fine performances. They are committed to their roles and are perhaps the only people involved in the production (other than director DJ Caruso) who are sincere about their investment in the project. The film is well-made in the sense of being well shot, with mostly well-done effects work and strong action sequences, as mentioned.
The real issue with I Am Number Four is that it so obviously reads as pandering. Movies are incredibly hard to make, and in general there is a lot that can be forgiven in the face of what a film is offering: a simple good-time, a laugh, and/or a daring approach that others are not taking. Some would claim that I Am Number Four was not made for adults as a way to explain and excuse its flaws. Yet, the film’s greatest weakness is indeed its overt and insincere grab at its young adult target demographic.
Given the opportunity to create a coming-of-age story (of a sort), the filmmakers did not choose to make a Stand By Me, an E.T., or even a unique and engaging alien-romance such as Starman (which the filmmakers clearly reference). No, there is no passion in this project, no heart, and little-to-no sincere investment in the story on the part of the creators. There is merely a financially-motivated attempt to spoon-feed regurgitated ideas from poorly constructed sources to an impressionable audience these filmmakers owe more to.
Producers Steven Spielberg and Michael Bay hired Smallville writing partners Alfred Gough and Miles Millar to work on the script, in tandem with I Am Number Four book series authors Jobie Hughes and controversial A Million Little Pieces author James Frey, writing under the pen name Pittacus Lore. (Side note: Pittacus Lore is a character who plays a significant role in the book series, but is not seen in the film.) In other words, screenwriters Gough and Millar worked in concurrence with Hughes and Frey in order to construct a unified version of the book and the film, with each informing the other, rather than adapting the film from a book which was created organically, with story in mind first and foremost.
It is natural, in any business, to in some ways model or emulate what has been a successful formula for others. This film, however, feels a bit like a group of investors got together and opened a “MacDougals” chain in the hopes that at least some portion of the population would either mistake it for McDonalds, or wouldn’t care that it was a knock-off, so long as they received their high-fat, high-salt, food-product infusion. The original lacks nutrition at best, and is harmful at worst; the copy lacks nutrition, imagination, and integrity.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this film’s formula is that it is likely going to work. Box office projections indicate that I Am Number Four will win as the highest-grossing film in its opening weekend – a feat that will promise us much more of the same hollow and derivative cinema in the years to come.
Check out the trailer for I Am Number Four:
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