Film: I Am Number Four
Starring: Alex Pettyfer, Timothy Olyphant, Teresa Palmer, Dianna Agron, Kevin Durand
Written by: Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and Marti Noxon
Directed by: D. J. Caruso
Genre: Science Fiction, Adventure, Special Origin Issue
Rating: 6 out of 10 / B-
WARNING: MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS!
John Smith (Alex Pettyfer) isn’t like other teenage boys. In fact, he technically isn’t a real boy at all: he’s an alien from the planet Lorien, one of nine children with special powers that survive a massacre by the bestial Mogadorians. John and his guardian Henri (Timothy Olyphant) move from town to town, hiding out from the Mogadorian hunters. The hunters are seeking all nine of the children, and they have to kill them in a certain order. One, Two and Three are already gone, and John is Number Four. In their latest hiding spot in Paradise, Ohio, John meets and falls in love with Sarah (Dianna Agron), a budding photographer at the local high school, and befriends alien-obsessed Sam (Callan McAuliffe). When the Mogadorian Commander (Kevin Durand) comes to town, John must learn how to use his powers and must decide to keep running or to fight for his new friends and home.
The buzz around the film has been boiled down to a simple—and simplistic—tagline: “Twilight with aliens.” That’s only true if you’ve never seen or heard of X-Men. Or Smallville. Or Buffy. Or Roswell. Or…well, any number of teen-centered sci-fi/fantasy series about special people with special powers that they have to keep a secret so as not to endanger everyone around them. That’s really not a surprise. The film was written by the creators of Smallville and one of the most prominent (and most polarizing) names from Buffy. Sure, it’s based on a young adult novel—and what isn’t these days—but just reading the base summaries of each, it’s clear that the film is its own entity. Writers Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and Marti Noxon, as well as director D. J. Caruso, have jettisoned most of the book’s mythology and focus more on character instead of plot…for good or for ill.
So let’s start with the characters. Alex Pettyfer is certainly a fine-looking choice for the lead in a series: Lorien is apparently home to beings of exceptional beauty, chiseled jaw lines, luscious lips and the perkiest nipples this side of Alpha Centauri. Don’t look at me like that; he’s 20 years old, and he’s shirtless at least five times in the first hour. Sadly, Pettyfer isn’t the best actor, although he’s certainly better than other wannabe franchise leads like Sam Worthington and Shia LeBouef. He’s quite capable, even if his British accent isn’t completely hidden, but he tends to overplay the dramatic scenes and frames the film with some of the most heavy-handed and unnecessary narration since the original theatrical cut of Blade Runner. But he’s pretty. Oh, stars in heaven, is he pretty.
The rest of the cast helps hide Pettyfer’s limited range, though. Timothy Olyphant is a fine father figure, and Callan McAuliffe is quite endearing as the outcast nerd. In fact, he may be the most sympathetic of the entire cast, and there’s quite a few subtext-heavy moments between him and Pettyfer. Glee‘s Dianna Agron wisely underplays Sarah, and her sincere line deliveries speak volumes more about the characters than the words ever do. All of the lines for Kevin Durand’s Commander must have been written by Marti Noxon, because he immediately brings to mind the Master from Buffy in his sarcasm, arrogance and his Nosferatu face (but without fruit punch mouth).
The biggest surprise, though, is Teresa Palmer as Number Six, a fellow Lorien with far more mastery over her abilities. She makes one of the kick-assing-est entries I can remember in an action film, and she’s got massive amounts of charisma. Caruso allows Palmer to use her natural Australian accent, which makes her seem all the more different and dangerous. She definitely has a mutant Mad Max vibe to her with her motorcycle, wicked knife and Nightcrawler-in-X2 teleportation powers. And her ability to look like a total bad-ass while walking away from explosions in slow motion, a cliche that doesn’t seem so unwelcome when Number Six is part of the equation.
With all this focus on character, you may be asking “Sure, but what about the plot?” Well, there isn’t much of one, honestly. The book the film is based on is the first one in a series of six, and the film quite obviously screams “origin story” with every scene. The steps are all put into place, and most of the plot twists are entirely predictable. We’ve all heard this origin story dozens of times in comics, TV shows, movies, video games and probably kinetoscope, if you go back far enough. Most of the screenplay is devoted to setting up the relationships between the characters, and there isn’t much focus on special effects or choreographed battles until the final act. In fact, up until the explosive, thrilling finale, most of the effects are very low key and simple. Again, the focus is not on the sci-fi spectacle that’s promised in the trailers, but on the people inside of it.
With all this praise, why the B- grade? There are a few fairly large flaws. As stated previously, the film does remove a good deal of the admittedly silly mythology of the book, which is both a blessing and a curse. It simplifies the proceedings quite a bit and allows the film to focus on the characters, but it also leaves what’s left seem extremely basic and unfinished. Too much of the flavor of the book may have been lost, although it was probably better to lose too much than not enough. It’s a bit too long by about 10 minutes, with a first half that moves rather slowly. Finally, John’s powers are frustratingly undefined, which is understandable considering that he’s just learning how to use them and going through Lorien puberty, but a good baseline would have been nice so that each new ability he (or Number Six) demonstrates doesn’t seem so arbitrary.
Still, you could do worse. It’s a rather entertaining film, and it doesn’t take itself entirely seriously, with plenty of light touches that help to diffuse some of the melodrama. It’s not Twilight with aliens at all. It’s far too warm for that, both in mood and in a very literal lighting sense, and it’s not as insufferably, suffocatingly pretentious. John and Sarah are flawed individuals with an organic chemistry, not a pouty Mary Sue and a vampire Gary Stu in a stilted, stunted romantic fantasy. They’re much like the film in many ways, which has its flaws and has its problems, but is still entertaining, enjoyable and gives you an adrenaline rush without the unpleasant side effects. It remains to be seen if the film will spawn a franchise like the books, but if it does, I have a strong feeling that it will only get better from here on out. Every origin story starts on shaky ground, after all.
Plus, Alex Pettyfer is pretty. So very pretty. Did I mention that already? What was I talking about again?