In a perfect world, the convoluted mess called I Am Number Four could have been great. It had all the trappings for success: based off a semi-popular novel for teens, a fairly accomplished director in D.J. Caruso, the producing "talent" of Michael Bay, two hot young stars in Alex Pettyfer and Glee's own Dianna Agron, and an enigmatic, yet intriguing trailer campaign. So why is it that the final product is one of the most deeply unsatisfying theatrical experiences I have had in some time?
Opening with the death of "Number Three", we jump into the life of John (Pettyfer), an alien being protected on Earth from a group called the Mogadorians. As it turns out, the Mogadorians wiped out the population of John's planet years before, except for nine children with extraordinary powers. For some reason, they have to be killed in order, and with three down, John is next in line for extermination. As he goes on the run with his protector Henri (Timothy Olyphant), they settle into the small town of Paradise, Ohio. Soon after, John starts gaining and learning more about his powers. But with a new love (Agron) and his lust to just be normal thrown into the mix, John may be in more trouble than he can imagine.
I have never read the source material for I Am Number Four, but I would hazard a guess that it did a half decent job of explaining what is going on, and did not just strive to set future sequels in motion. The film on the other hand, suffers because the sequel seems to be the only thing in mind outside of special effects. We are thrown right into John's life, and we only get little nuggets of reason for what is going on at any given time. We never get full explanations, and are never even offered the ability to piece it together by ourselves. The film seems merely content giving us hints, offering little enigmatic moments to get us thinking. But instead of doing anything with these scenes, it merely continues trucking along to its eventual ending which promises a continuation and the hope for some further reasoning for what is happening. But if the filmmakers do not care about informing the audience now, why will we care later?
But this would not be such a slap in the face if we had not already seen so many films in the past half-decade doing the exact same thing, attempting to replicate the success of the Harry Potter, Twilight and The Lord of the Rings franchises. The Golden Compass, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, The Spiderwick Chronicles, and Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief (which this film oddly resembles) are all examples of studios making films out of young adult books, specifically to capitalize on the potential for sequels and lengthy franchise possibilities. They all failed in varying degrees, because they all suffer from the same thing I Am Number Four suffers from not enough plot, too much dependence on a sequel. Had all of these films even attempted to be able to stand on their own, perhaps they would have gotten the sequel they seemed to think they deserved. I know Four is part of a proposed book franchise, as opposed to an already established book franchise, but it merely skipped the waiting in the middle for the eventual film.
Should these plot and sequel problems not already be enough, Four suffers from copying Twilight a little too close (even including the notable musical cues from current alt-rockers). Sure, there are no vampires, but the romance between John and Agron's Sarah feels a little too forced for comfort. Right in the middle of being hunted down to be systematically wiped out, we are supposed to believe that someone who has spent their life running, would simply fall in love out of the blue, and not feel any consequences? We are supposed to believe he does not know better? Sure he's a teenager and we all did stupid things when we were that young, but why does the focus of the film seem to hinge on the chemistry and romance between these two star-crossed lovers? I was intrigued from the early moments in the film where it started to set the plot into motion, and the need for John and Henri to keep running to avoid death. But then it suddenly shifts from a science fiction tale to a romantic love story, and totally loses anything it has going for it. A last minute save in the final act of the film where it shifts back into the realm of sci-fi is not nearly enough to make up for well over an hour of melodrama and teen angst. It is awkward, silly, and practically plagiarizes Twilight.
I will say I was interested and intrigued when the film was attempting to do something with the plot and overarching story, but these moments are never given the chance to fully develop. The film criminally underuses Olyphant, the only actor who actually acts in the entire film, and makes him into an almost useless background character. We only get glimpses of Teresa Palmer's character throughout the film (the trailer already gives away any mystery of who she might be), and when she finally shows up to do something, she merely speaks in overtly sexual allusions. Pettyfer and Agron both seem to suffer from not knowing what emphasis to put on their character and when, and relative newcomer Callan McAuliffe is stuck in the cliche-ridden role as the know-it-all geek of a best friend.
When it attempts to work, I Am Number Four is quite interesting. I would have loved more story, and a whole lot less romance. Even what does work (including the decent special effects) seems to suffer as a result of all the melodramatic romance.
(This review also appeared on http://www.geekspeakmagazine.com).