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One of the delights of pop culture scholarship is watching the movie industry consume and recycle itself – over and over and over.


It’s a grim spectacle, mostly, but kind of fun if you’re into pattern recognition and tracking cynical, shameless money grabs. Hollywood’s endless procession of sequels, remakes, updates and reboots regularly prompts the familiar lament from critics and audiences: Why can’t anyone come up with an original movie?


cover art

I Am Number Four

Director: D.J. Caruso
Cast: Alex Pettyfer, Timothy Olyphant, Dianna Agron, Teresa Palmer, Callan McAuliffe

(DreamWorks; US theatrical: 18 Feb 2011 (General release); UK theatrical: 23 Feb 2011 (General release); 2011)

Even ostensibly new movies – with an “original” premise and a script hot off the laser printer – are usually substantially derivative in some way. It’s an axiom in marketing and development circles that, if a movie makes money, another movie just like it will make more money.


This seems to be especially true of science fiction, fantasy, horror and those other disreputable genres politely referred to as speculative fiction. I’m not the first guy to notice that James Cameron’s Avatar could have easily been titled Dances With Na’vi.


Which brings us to I Am Number Four, a PG-13 science-fiction-slash-teen-romance movie so faithful to the Twilight template that it could have been assembled by marketing software.


I Am Number Four would love to be the next big teen sci-fi franchise. It’s got all the necessary parts – super-powered high school kids, hokey mythology, teen angst and beautiful young people with nice teeth and impossible abs. Just swap in aliens for vampires and you’ve got the picture.


Uninspired and Tedious
As the relatively successful Twilight films attest, these kinds of stories can be effective. They’ve been around forever, really, in books, film and TV. Occasionally they can be brilliant – Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series comes to mind.


They can also be severely tedious, as is the case with Number Four, an uninspired knockoff from the director of Disturbia and the writers of TV’s Smallville.


The movie stars up-and-coming heartthrob and – this seems relevant – former Gap model Alex Pettyfer as “John Smith,” a gallant but troubled teen who moves from town to town with his single father, played by Timothy Olyphant.


“John” isn’t really John, of course, and in fact isn’t a human at all. He’s a fugitive space alien hiding out on Earth, and his dad is actually his extraterrestrial bodyguard.


It turns out that John is one of several teen prodigies sent to our planet in hopes of protecting them from the rapacious Mogadorians, evil space tyrants who look like villains from Star Trek: The Next Generation, circa 1996. Head tattoos. Trench coats. Dental prostheses. You know the type.


These bad guys have compiled a list of the teen heroes, apparently, and followed them to Earth to pick them off one by one. Number Three – hiding out in the deep jungle – gets it in the film’s first scene, and John is Number Four. We eventually meet Numbers Five and Six. I think. It’s a little unclear.


John’s strategy up to this point has been to hide in plain sight, posing as a typical American high school kid, and running off to a new town when he senses the approach of the Mogs and their space hounds (literally, I’m afraid).


Girls, Jocks and Nerds
Everything changes, though, when John meets Sarah (Dianna Agron, Glee), the most attractive high school art nerd the galaxy has ever seen. John decides he must take a stand against his pursuers, and thus we have the movie’s last two-thirds.


It’s all utterly ridiculous from this point on, but that’s never been a particular impediment to these sorts of movies. Director D.J. Caruso threads it all together as best he can, but never seems to be interested in the subtext of these stories – teenagers and their fears and anxieties.


Number Four doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is – a derivative teen sci-fi adventure with lots of pretty people and big explosions. But even considering its modest ambitions, it’s just not very well done. There’s a 30-minute dead zone in the middle of the picture, consisting of moist little moments between John and Sarah. Most of the action scenes are visually incoherent, relying far too much on quick cuts and frantic editing. The jokes and one-liners are lame, and the jocks-vs-nerds high school storyline is weirdly old-fashioned, like it was airlifted in from a ‘80s afterschool special.


The effects are pretty good, at least. I liked the color-coded plasma guns. (Red lasers for the bad guys; blue lasers for the good guys). But there’s just nothing here aside from the product placements and the CGI set pieces. The movie ends with everyone all lined up for a sequel, but what are they going to call it? I Am Number Four Two?


Glenn McDonald writes about popular culture from his home in lovely Chapel Hill, NC. His humor essays have been described as "grammatically consistent" and "remarkably frequent". He is editor of the Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me daily news quiz at NPR.org, and a film critic at the Raleigh News & Observer. He lives virtually at www.glenn-mcdonald.com.


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