By Don Simpson | February 18, 2011
Director: D. J. Caruso
Writers: Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, Marti Noxon (screenplay), based on the novel by Pittacus Lore (aka Jobie Hughes & James Frey)
Starring: Alex Pettyfer, Timothy Olyphant, Dianna Agron, Kevin Durand, Teresa Palmer, Callan McAuliffe, Jake Abel
Number Four (Alex Pettyfer) is a 15-year old alien teenager from the planet Lorien. Four and his guardian, Henri (Timothy Olyphant), are hiding on Earth (luckily the Loriens look and speak exactly like humans) from the Mogadorians, an evil race of aliens that are hunting down The Garde (Numbers One through Nine) sequentially. (The Garde — Lorien teenagers with genetically inherited special powers known as legacies — are protected by a charm that only allows them to be killed in ascending order.)
I Am Number Four opens with the murder of Number Three (Greg Townley). Four is partying with some high school friends on the Florida coast when a third scar appears on his right ankle, signifying the death of Three. Four’s friends witness his glowing scar, so Henri must whisk Four off to Paradise — Ohio, that is — where Four is given the highly imaginative alias of John Smith.
Paradise promptly lives up to its name because this is where Four meets his true love, Sarah Hart (Dianna Agron), an amateur high school photographer. (We are told multiple times that Lorien love is much different than human love because Loriens remain faithful to their true love forever.) Four also befriends Sam (Callan McAuliffe), a geeky kid who believes in aliens. Oh, and Four repeatedly finds himself toe-to-toe with Sarah’s jock ex-boyfriend Mark (Jake Abel) — who is not only the Paradise Sheriff’s (Jeff Hochendoner) son but he is also the head honcho of a gaggle of high school bullies; but Mark is merely a warm-up for Four’s impending encounter with the Mogadorians, who are hot on his trail. The oh so sultry Number Six (Teresa Palmer) also makes an appearance.
Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (the creators of the television series Smallville) along with Marti Noxon (writer and producer for the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer) adapted the screenplay from the bestselling young adult novel by Pittacus Lore. Without knowing anything about the film’s writers, the very first thing I noted after the screening was: “I Am Number Four is similar to Smallville, especially in terms of the dialogue with an occasional glimpse of that certain brand of Whedon-esque humor.” I also noted several plot similarities to the television series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Something I realized after the fact is that all three television series and I Am Number Four share something else: a lead character whose destined role is to save the world, but their greatest desire is to just be a normal high school student.
Strangely enough (for a Michael Bay production at least) I Am Number Four focuses mostly on developing the characters’ relationships with each other, rather than wowing the audience with thrilling action sequences and special effects. Do not misunderstand, there are thrills and special effects, but not nearly as many as one might expect. Stranger still, I Am Number Four’s narrative structure feels like a piece of In Medias Res. The story seems to begin mid-action (in the grander scheme of events at least). The audience is given no real backstory to work with. We learn very little of the planet Lorien and its people (except for the bare necessities about The Garde). I would have expected this story to begin on Lorien (or at least include flashbacks to Lorien history); or, if it did begin on Earth, I would have expected a very different starting point (maybe with the arrival of the Loriens on Earth or the murders of One and Two). But the film opts to stick very close to the narrative framing of the source novel, thus flinging us right into the middle of a much longer story. (Come to think of it, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope is very similar in this aspect — I Am Number Four is also destined to be a franchise film, and I would not be surprised if prequels are released at some point.) This is actually I Am Number Four’s greatest weakness: its narrative does not stand up well on its own. While I often praise films that do not baby us with backstory (especially in the form of voice-over narration or flashbacks), this is one of the rare occasions that I actually think the audience needs to know more about the past in order to fully appreciate the onscreen events. And even though it is quite commendable that I Am Number Four cares more about dialogue and relationships than thrills; the story probably deserves a bit more tension and a lot less predictability. I wonder if I Am Number Four would have worked better as a pilot for a television series?
I have to admit that I was most surprised by the acting performances, especially by Pettyfer, Agron and McAuliffe. Director D.J. Caruso (Eagle Eye, Disturbia) and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (Pan’s Labyrinth, From Dusk Till Dawn) do a commendable job with the visualization of the story. They keep things fairly simple and low-key (I hesitate to go as far as “real”), using CGI as an occasional accent rather than a crutch to rely on.
It almost pains me not to give I Am Number Four a high rating, but the story lacks any real substance and — at the risk of being brutally honest — this is one of the shallowest and most boring science fiction films I have watched in a long time. Personally, I prefer science fiction films that engage my mind by expounding upon philosophical theories and what have you. Ultimately, I Am Number Four is basically just a coming-of-age/high school romance flick that happens to include an alien…who just happens to look like a male supermodel.
On a side note: the picturesque town of Vandergrift, Pennsylvania (which was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted’s landscape architectural firm in 1895) was used as the setting for the fictional town of Paradise.