I Am Number Four
Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, Marti Noxon (Novel: Pittacus Lore)
Alex Pettyfer, Timothy Olyphant, Teresa Palmer, Dianna Agron, Callan McAuliffe
PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and for language
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Sometimes, you walk into a film knowing full well what to expect. I Am Number Four is just such a film. I walked in knowing that it would probably be of limited cinematic quality, but hoping to be entertained. I got what I was expecting and sometimes that's all I desire.
The film tells the story of a group of super-powered youths sent away from their home planet while their people were being eradicated. Separated upon arrival on Earth, they must eke out a meager existence hiding from the raiding forces as they seek to destroy the last vestiges of this race, the only ones who can protect Earth from their colonization. Each of the nine youths is numbered sequentially and must be killed in that order. The film begins as the youth numbered Three flees for his life through the jungles of South America before being murdered mercilessly. His death is immediately felt by the remaining Numbers, embodied in the film's protagonist, Number Four (Alex Pettyfer).
His guardian (Timothy Olyphant) forces him to leave behind the friends he's made and re-settle in a new location to return under the radar and taking on a new name: John Smith. The problem here is that John, no matter how he tries, can't blend into the background and, in a short time, makes a friend (Callan McAuliffe) and finds a girlfriend (Dianna Agron). As John slowly finds his footing with his powers, he is pursued not only by the aliens who want to murder him, but also by a girlfriend Sarah's ex Mark (Jake Abel).
The film is adapted from a novel by Pittacus Lore (the nom de plume of co-writers Jobie Hughes and James Frey) and tells an interesting story with precisely timed revelations. The problem is with the rote dialogue capturing teen angst in a way only a young adult book can when it's not trying very hard. How much of the forced conversational exchanges are directly from the book, I don't know, but the film is obviously playing down to kids of limited intelligence. Everything is carefully and precisely laid out and lacks any measure of nuance.
Performances are on par with other similar excursions into popular culture. Pettyfer is a new, hot property in Hollywood, headlining not only this film, but the upcoming modernization of Beauty and the Beast called Beastly. He has a charm that is important in such leading roles and will easily appeal to the young female demographic that is often the target of films like Beastly. In addition, he possesses a commanding, confident presence that enables him to be admired by the male audiences that will make or break I Am Number Four. His relationship with Sarah is a fitting distraction, for what would a good film be without a romantic entanglement. Agron has taken aspects of her Glee persona and created a softer version of Quinn Fabray. She has a touch of chemistry with her co-star which makes most of their scenes together work. An awkward pairing could have made the film even more frustrating.
Olyphant and McAuliffe are capable supporting players. Olyphant clearly has the experience, but relinquishes much of his character's potential in an effort to convey a simple, protective authoritarian figure. Many longtime, capable actors have let their Paycheck Roles consume their talents and delivered disappointing and embarrassing performances. Olyphant successfully avoids that pitfall even if there isn't a lot of subtlety in the character. McAuliffe plays the sidekick decently, but also allows the script to keep him from developing an extra dimension. Teresa Palmer, on the other hand, plays the rough-and-tumble Number Six, a gruff butt-kicker who arrives in the nick of time to assist John out of his increasingly dangerous situation. She is as one-note as if she were stolen from a Zack Snyder film. She has no depth or vulnerability and Palmer just doesn't seem interested in giving it to her. Perhaps with more character development in a future, potential sequel, she might have a chance to try something new.
The climactic battle of I Am Number Four is nothing if not exciting. Sure, it uses several routine action elements, but some manage to stick out in the mind as being slightly more engaging than the rest. While revealing those would give away key plot elements, I can say that one scene in particular, set in slow motion just before the last enemy is thwarted, is quite impressive. These types of scenes are the exception, not the rule, but you have to expect such from a director like D.J. Caruso. And if you've seen his films, which you may well have (Disturbia, Eagle Eye), you shouldn't at all be surprised.
It's always possible to enjoy a film even when the demonstrable elements are so clearly inferior. I Am Number Four is just that kind of movie, one worth watching simply for the pleasure of it. You aren't going to find a metaphorical treatise on existentialism, but you may well be entertained...but only if you can divorce the concepts of "film as art" and "film as entertainment" for the twain shan't meet.
February 21, 2011