I Am Number Four’s book origins lie in James Frey’s writing “workshop” (read: sweatshop) called Full Fathom Five, a ghost-writing arrangement set up to benefit young writers. Not a bad idea, but Frey’s working contract is so constricting that anyone who signs this is insane. The goal of Frey’s company was to produce “the next Twilight”. Well he succeeded. I Am Number Four bears a striking, overt, indisputable resemblance to Twilight. It is highly derivative. So basically, James Frey & Co. published a piece of Twilight fanfiction that got made into a movie.
The derivative nature of I Am Number Four cannot be ignored—if you’ve seen Twilight it practically bashes you over the head every five seconds, but the Buffy The Vampire Style kills (only way to kill an alien is to stake them in the torso, at which time they promptly turn into ash) bothered me, too. I’m blaming co-writer Marti Noxon, a veteran of Buffy and Angel for that. It’s just so annoying to sit in a theater and feel like you’ve seen everything, not only before but better. This is I Am Number Four’s biggest mistake. Nothing about the movie felt fresh or inventive and it’s hard to be interested when you’re comparing it constantly to twelve different things that have come before.
The second-biggest problem in I Am Number Four is that of exposition. The story in Number Four makes little sense, mainly because exposition is shoe-horned into the plot in the most inelegant, clunky ways. I never fully grasped the central problem here. “John Smith” (new It Boy Alex Pettyfer) is a teenaged alien on the run. Okay. His alien race is being hunted down and he and a handful of others are all that survive. Okay. “John Smith” (not his real name but we never learn if he has an alien name, like Kal-El) has powers, or “legacies”, that mean he belongs to a special group of warriors on his home planet. Okay. I can roll with all that.
What I can’t roll with are the following: I never caught the name of John’s home planet, nor the name of the other alien race hunting him down. It sounded like “Laureyland” and the “Macadamians”. And no, I will not Google that because the movie should be able to communicate this stuff without me having to hit up the interwebz to clarify. So the set up is that John Smith is number four of nine of the special Laureylandian warriors and the first three are already dead. He’s next. Why is he next? It is never clear why the Macadamians are so hung up on killing the Laureylandians in order. It’s also not clear why the Macadamians want to kill the Laureylandians at all. Something about decimation? I can only assume it’s because all the Laureylandians are super-beautiful people with magical powers and the Macadamians are horrible and grotesque and don’t have any powers. Jealous bitches.
Third, Number Four makes the same “stuck too close to the source material” mistake that Twilight did. I Am Number Four: The Book isn’t great. It’s a slap-dash effort at publishing that Frey could have just skipped and gone straight to the screenplay. Too much cheesy dialogue survives, but that isn’t the worst offense. What absolutely killed it for me was the plot about John’s one true love, Sarah (Dianna Agron, Glee). I wonder if I would have hated this plotline as much if they had cast someone else to play Sarah. Agron cannot act to save her life and worse, she actively sucks all the energy out of a scene with her flat, nearly-monotone delivery. At first I thought Pettyfer was the culprit of the suckitude, but he meshed nicely with Timothy Olyphant (Justified, The Crazies), Teresa Palmer (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) and Callan McAuliffe (nothing I’ve ever heard of). Pettyfer ranged from “not horrible” to “actually pretty good” in his scenes with these other actors, which meant that it was, in fact, Agron who was crushing the soul out of this movie.
It’s just that I never believe John, this extraordinary kid, would fall for bland Sarah. Especially when fellow Laureylandian Number Six (Palmer) shows up. Six is such a great character it’s really a shame Number Four didn’t do better on opening weekend because we’ll probably never get to see her story, The Power of Six. She’s a kickass, strong female character and she’s funny to boot. Palmer lights up the screen, even selling her uber-ridiculous introduction, which reminded me of this, as campy fun. She has great chemistry with Pettyfer, too, which makes up for the fact that Pettyfer and Agron generated heat equivalent to glass of room-temperature water (maybe that’s why they broke up?). Palmer/Number Six was easily the best part of Number Four.
As for Pettyfer, the heartthrob-in-training this movie was meant to launch, well, they kinda succeeded. The movie isn’t good enough to judge his acting, but I can say I didn’t find him a totally awful actor. He might show better with stronger material. Mostly, though, Pettyfer has that rare It that makes it nearly impossible to look away when he’s on screen. It’s not just that he’s handsome—lots of actors are handsome—it’s more that he brings a fresh, cocky swagger to the screen. Maybe that’s making him a little twatty in real life, but on screen it translates as a confident and commanding presence. Pettyfer isn’t apologizing for being so pretty, he isn’t sheepish about his presence in a teen franchise, he just struts across the screen and emulates, “Yeah I’m pretty. I can also kick your ass.” Which may be why Number Four skewed toward male-orientated audiences and why Pettyfer leaves the weekend not as a heartthrob but as a future action star. He isn’t worth the $10 million he’s reported asking for, YET. He very well could be one day soon.
Is I Am Number Four worth your time and money? Eeehhhh… If you can turn your brain off, if you just want a couple hours of fun, silly entertainment, sure. It’s a well-shot movie, the action sequences are especially strong and the special effects are mostly great. But unless you’re looking for a new reason to hate Dianna Agron or you like bad action movies, probably not.