I Am Number Four (Blu-ray)
Alex Pettyfer, Timothy Olyphant, Dianna Agron, Kevin Durand, Teresa Palmer, Callan McAuliffe, Jake Abel
(Dreamworks; US DVD: 24 May 2011 (General release))
There is nothing worse than a movie that can’t make up its mind what it wants to be. It is a supremely frustrating experience to sit back and watch as a proposed entertainment hems and haws before finally (if ever) discovering its narrative strengths. Sometimes, it’s bad jokes. In other instances, it’s a lame love story messing up things. In the case of I Am Number Four, it’s a lot of little things. D.J. Caruso, famous for giving Shia Lebeouf a post-Transformers lease on life (Distrubia, Eagle Eye), tackles the young adult novel by Jobie Hughes and James Frey with full knowledge that there is substantial sequel fodder to be found in the story of fugitive aliens on the run from a band of evil extraterrestrials. Sadly, without a clear view of what’s ahead, this origin tale is a sloppy, incoherent chore.
Number Four (Alex Pettyfur) is from a planet known as Lorien. As a young child, he and eight other refugees were sent to Earth in order to hide from the murderous Mogadorians, a race bent on invading and destroying all other planets. Along with his guardian, Henri (Timothy Olyphant), the confused teenager must constantly stay on the move, less he is discovered and destroyed. Already, three of his kind have been killed off by the Commander (Kevin Durand), forcing Four to flee Florida, finally landing in a place called Paradise, Ohio. There, he becomes John Smith, and befriends reigning nerd Sam Goode (Callan McAuliffe), troubled outsider/photographer Sarah Hart (Dianna Agron), and a beagle puppy named Bernie. Not necessarily enamored of the new kid in town is football star (and spurned boyfriend) Mark James (Jake Abel). As he learns to use his powers and discovers his destiny, Four/John will have to face the wrath of the Mogadorians - as well as the meddling of an obsessed BMOC and his buddies.
What, exactly, is I Am Number Four supposed to be? A superficial slice of speculative fiction? A bad mixture of stranger-in-a-strange-land cliches and post-Twilight tween pandering? A high school dramedy? A lukewarm adolescent love story? A kick-ass action flick? A weird amalgamation of a dozen differing post-modern boy’s adventures tales - with kissing? It’s really hard to tell, and that’s as much a fault of the filmmaking as the narrative. For a movie culled from a specific source, I Am Number Four feels like random chapters ripped out of a much better read. One imagines that following John Smith’s trial and tribulations on the page would make a lot more sense than this often ambitious but all over the map mess. If it weren’t for the occasional F/X work, and the inherent desire to get to the final showdown, there would be no reason to experience this unexceptional effort.
Up front, it needs to be said that Pettyfer makes an awful hero. He’s leaden, looking closer to the Abercrombie and Fitch ideal of manly than a true extraterrestrial champion. It seems more than appropriate that, later on, he has to have his butt saved by the school geek and a female member of his space clan. But beside that, Pettyfer has no magnetism - not alone or with his equally vacant co-star…and this is a big problem for I Am Number Four. For reasons only he can decipher, Caruso decides to spend a good 50% to 60% of the film’s two hour running time watching our blank couple make cow eyes at each other. We get pointless scenes of personal ennui, moments when characters are supposed to connect and instead just talk around and over each other. Even the sequences of bullying come across as mechanical and meant to do little except set us up for the comeuppance we know will soon be unleashed.
It’s not all Pettyfer’s fault. When Timothy Olyphant, dialing down his otherwise anger management intensity, is the best thing in your entire production, you know there’s a void at the center of your spectacle. And that’s another thing - where’s the pomp? Where’s the epic sense of scope that only a battle between two space races should commend? We get very little alien…anything. The baddies are built like poorly tattooed walking catfish, their bad teeth and nasal gills supposedly making up for their ripped from The Matrix wardrobe. Their main hunting creature looks like a miniaturized version of the Cloverfield monster with the inclusion of some flying ability. When John’s beagle turns into a giant chimera (no spoiler necessary, since you can see it coming a mile away), it looks like a leftover from Tim Burton’s take on Wonderland, and the Luriens are nothing more than humans with little or no fashion sense.
What we want is something like The Hidden, a movie where ETs kick the crap out of each other in big splashy action scenes. What we get are too many night scenes and some flashlight hands. Granted, the last few shots are impressive, if only because they remind you of what I Am Number Four could be. Instead it’s all too much the teen stuff. In truth, this film could have been a true battle beyond the stars. For his part, Caruso appears certain that his overreliance on the romantic angle will win over the Edward/Bella brood. It definitely does not. Instead, it confuses anyone who wants to understand what to root for, what to believe in, and what to substantiate as something other than franchise fodder.
Indeed, the most depressing aspect of I Am Number Four is how eagerly it sets itself up for a by now unlikely sequel. Even after 115 minutes, the movie suggests it’s just getting started. Had it really zeroed in on the main theme to be explored - teen love, alien smackdowns, the ages old search for life on other planets - this movie might have worked. While not capable of carrying an entire franchise, our interest levels would definitely defend another journey alongside John, Sam, and whatever remaining Luriens there are. Once again, we are stuck with another Potter placeholder, a title trying for a Rowling’s level of replay value without the boy wizard’s ease of entertainment. If only it knew what it wanted to be. I Am Number Four? Substantially less than that.