Based on a novel co-authored by shamed memoirist James Frey, “I Am Number Four” is a sci-fi take on the same sort of material that has made ‘Twilight‘ an international sensation. Instead of sparkly vampires, though, it’s a handsome, hounded alien played by Alex Pettyfer that takes center stage. And while it succeeds in some respects, particularly in the fact that it has a sense of humor and some jaunty action set pieces, it all too often falls into the same draggy aimlessness that largely defines the ‘Twilight’ franchise.
This is expected, though. In the years that followed the phenomenal success of the ‘Harry Potter‘ films, various studios trotted out their own versions of ‘Potter’-like would-be franchises. They were all based on children’s or young adult literature, all with a slightly magical or mystical bent, and none succeeded in the same fundamental ways that the ‘Potter’ movies did, critically or commercially. (This is why we haven’t seen a “City of Ember II” or “Return of the Spiderwick Chronicles.”) It was only a matter of time before the same formula was applied to the ‘Twilight‘ series. In the months and years to come the box office will be littered with similar material. “I Am Number Four” is just, well, the first.
“I Am Number Four” opens with a rush: we swoop in on a jungle village. There’s some kind of fearsome beast hunting a young man. The boy shows amazing dexterity, leaping from tree to tree in skittering, Spider-Man-ish leaps. The boy is then seized upon by a cloaked figure and disemboweled by a glowing scabbard. The boy’s body turns to ash; it’s the thrilling opening to either a blockbuster film or a particularly memorable episode of “Fringe.”
From the South American jungles we zoom to Florida, where the attractive but somehow “off” Pettyfer (he sort of looks like a walking, talking hieroglyphic) is fooling around with his high school chums. Suddenly, he’s seized. He can sense and see the murder of the boy in the jungle and is gripped by the knowledge that he’s next. You see, he’s a space alien who crashed landed on Earth with the sole survivors of his home world. They’re being hunted down one by one (and “in order,” although the reason for this and the particular order are never clarified) by the same destructive alien race that killed his original planet; heady stuff for a dude going through the already quite-painful tract of adolescence.
Pettyfer has a mentor in Henri, played by underrated genre stalwart Timothy Olyphant, and the two pick up and move to the fictional Paradise, Ohio, where the film begins in earnest and we first encounter what turns out to be a series of narrative roadblocks.
The biggest issue, and one that you feel very early on in the movie, is the sense of detachment with being forced to identify with a kid that is an intergalactic refugee. In these types of big-budget science fiction movies, the audience needs to have someone they can connect with, which is why most great sci-fi flicks feature an “everyman” hero; someone we can enter an outlandish world with and goggle at the craziness together. These are characters like Luke Skywalker, Neo, and Ellen Page from “Inception.” This might have been a deliberate move away from ‘Twilight,’ since Bella Swan is our emissary to the vampire world in those books, but the decision doesn’t make any less sense.
Number Four, as he’s known, may not exhibit all of his extraterrestrial character traits, but he’s still otherworldly and burdened with a worrisome amount of clunky “mythology” that he’s forced to deliver via deadpan narration. Once he gets to Paradise, he falls in love with a local girl played by “Glee‘s” Dianna Agron, has skirmishes with the local meathead football star (Jake Abel) and befriends a social outcast (Callan McAuliffe) whose father may have ties to his alien ancestry (don’t ask). He longs for a normal, human life, of course, because no one in any of these movies ever reminds the vampire/werewolf/alien that being a human teenager is the worst fucking thing on the planet.
Another huge issue, which settles in during the second act and almost cripples things entirely, is that they set up Timothy Olyphant to be a kind of mentor character, but he rarely imparts any wisdom and only seems to understand slightly more about the situation than Number Four. Not only would his expertise have been helpful in dispensing chunks of exposition, but it could have offered us some nifty training montages, complete with “eureka” moments of epiphany.
Instead, we get syrupy moments between the alien and the girl punctuated by of-the-moment, this-is-what-the-characters-are-feeling pop songs, and out-of-left-field bursts of violence courtesy of the film’s villain, the clumsily named Commander (Kevin Durand, under gobs of unconvincingly goofy make-up). The former should be better than the latter, considering the script was written by a trio of television writers who made their bread-and-butter with supernatural outsider series – Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, co-creators of teenage-Superman drama “Smallville,” and Marti Noxon, former show-runner for “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” And while these scenes have a certain Norman Rockwell charm, they never really gel as romantic (or particularly dramatic) moments, and often feel sluggish and insubstantial (maybe because everything else seems so hazy too).
Things pick up considerably when a fellow alien, Number Six (a fiery Teresa Palmer) shows up, and the action takes on a grander, crazily over-the-top scale, with the inclusion of a fearsome space beast that looks like what would happen if the monster from “Cloverfield” had sex with a flying squirrel. This is also when the movie seems to find its sense of humor, along with its pulse, as Number Six, after being juiced-up with some electro mumbo-jumbo, says, “Red Bull is for pussies” and the family dog mutates into a Harryhausen-indebted interstellar protector.
It’s just that, since things were never all that clear (or emotionally satisfying) to begin with, when the fireballs and plasma bursts start to fly, it’s hard to care much. “I Am Number Four” was directed by D.J. Caruso, a better-than-average Spielberg protégé (Spielberg produced this along with Michael Bay), and the action sequences in particular have a lively spark that matches the heady rush of hormones that adolescence provides, glittering with computer-generated embellishments. (Trevor Rabin‘s throbbing score helps too.) “I Am Number Four” doesn’t end exactly, or even provide a tantalizing cliffhanger. Instead, it just kind of trails off, a muddily elliptical conclusion that is built entirely on the understanding that future installments are on the way. For a movie with a number in the title, though, the filmmakers might be counting their alien chickens before they hatch. [C]