BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Number Four, one of nine aliens sent to Earth, hides from the invading Mogadorians while learning the nature of his powers and falling in love.
PROS: Well, it was under two hours…
CONS: Cliché-ridden story that borrows way too heavily from other movies and television shows; flat action and listless direction; bland actors.
When the titular Number Four (Alex Pettyfur), a teenage alien (and a really old teenage alien at that) with an arsenal of superpowers just waiting to be tapped, arrives in Paradise, Ohio to hide from Mogadorian hunters, he takes on the name John Smith as a cover identity. The humor comes from his complete lack of irony in taking the name, of course, but the name presents a problem not just for I Am Number Four‘s main character but for the movie itself, for it no longer has the resonance of the explorer who founded Jamestown or the American everyman in Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, but of somebody who is completely anonymous and without definition. It is not the first sign of how generic I Am Number Four will be, but it is the most obvious.
Who is Number Four? The movie paints some backstory in very broad strokes: years ago, nine infant aliens fled the planet Lorien to hide from the invading Mogadorians, an invading alien race that has destroyed their planet. Guardians protect the nine, helping them develop their incredible powers (Legacies) as they enter adulthood. Even in their adolescence, the Loriens wield enough power to cause the Mogadorians to seek them out and kill them one by one. Why don’t the Mogadorians just nuke the earth to destroy the nine? Because the Lorien children have been assigned numbers, and can only be killed in the sequence of their numbers. Why would they be given such obvious targets? No one knows, and in any case it doesn’t matter, because Numbers One, Two, and Three have just been killed (Number Three dies in an anemic opening sequence in Central America), making Number Four the prime target.
Even with such elemental backstory, questions arise. What was Lorien like? Why did they Lorien elders choose to send their children to Earth? We expect such questions to be answered as the movie unfolds, but answers are not forthcoming.
Number Four and his guardian (Timothy Olyphant), upon learning of Number Three’s death, flee to Paradise, Ohio, which looks far too much like a backlot from Dawson’s Creek, Roswell, or any number of television shows featuring beautiful young people with incredible powers or too-clipped dialogue that used to run on WB. Not surprising, given that two of the screenwriters (Alfred Gough, Miles Millar) created Smallville, while a third (Marti Noxon) used to write for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Nonetheless, new name emblazoned on his bland good looks, he announces his intention of going to high school while there (thus demonstrating why the Loriens are now all but extinct; if you’re supposed to hide from an invading race intent on your destruction, would it be wise to, you know, go out and make yourself visible?) and meets Sara (Dianna Argon), photographer and object of the affections (or obsessions) of school jock Mark (Jake Abel). There’s a Meet Cute, and the budding romance makes its borrowings (if not outright theft) of the Twilight series all too obvious, especially as Number Four begins to take on his Legacies. It takes no time at all for Jake to become smitten. Or for the Mogadorians to find his trail. Or for Number Six (Teresa Palmer) to find her way to Paradise to shake things up.
In outline, I Am Number Four follows much of the same formula familiar not only to most science fiction fans but to anybody who might have a passing knowledge of genre tropes. It probably makes for relatively harmless reading (the movie is based on the first of a series of YA novels by Pittacus Lore). Twenty years ago, with a tiny budget and earnest but wholly unknown leads and a scattering of character actors, it might have been an enjoyable bit of cheese that occasionally found its way into your VHS after a trip to Blockbuster alongside My Science Project. Unfortunately, the movie can’t shake D.J. Caruso’s suspense- or subtlety-free direction, Alex Pettyfur’s slack-jawed deadpan or Dianna Argon’s doe-eyed vacuousness. Action abounds, special effects happen, but display no energy or zip. Moreover, with characters so broadly drawn and story so slapdash, one finds it difficult to care what happens to Number Four or his intended. Or anybody else.
The Mogadorians are absurd. When they search the ruins of Number Four’s former residence, a beach house burned to a cinder by Number Six, they do so in black overcoats and with their mottled bald skulls in full view of any passerby. (I wanted to know why the site hadn’t been fenced off by insurance agents or even wrapped in crime scene tape, but didn’t feel like kicking a movie that barely had the strength to stand.) Not only that, but they pose no real difficulty to somebody who would like to trace their movements, as they house one of their ravenous chimeras in a garbage truck, and the chimera expresses its evil intent (or hunger) by rocking the truck on very weak shock absorbers. At one point the Mogadorians feed it a number of frozen turkeys for sustenance, wrappings and all, leaving me to wonder if the creature knew how to unwrap the birds. Actually, my inquiry became much more basic: where do these alien beings, either Mogadorian or Lorien, get their money?
The movie ends in a way meant to be the first in a series. I’m sure everybody involved would love for I Am Number Four to be the jumping off point for a Twilight in science fiction clothing, or maybe a New Age Smallville. Regardless of whether it can manage a second installment, unless it can provide something less derivative, this particular Number Four will likely be my last.
[See also: Jason Sanford’s review of the book on which this film is based.]