I Am Number Four
What It Is
Tall, athletic, and tanned, John Smith (Alex Pettyfer) looks like other high school boys in the movies. What his classmates don’t know, however, is that he’s an alien from another planet, and moreover, that he’s an alien being pursued by other aliens.
In fact, John doesn’t know the complete story either: he knows his parents died on his home planet Lorien, that he’s protected by Henri (Timothy Olyphant), and that they’ve been moving from place to place for years to avoid the bad aliens, the Mogadorians (you know they’re bad because they wear tattoos and black leather coats: they also tend to snarl and grimace).
As John comes to terms with his fate and learns the extent of his superpowers (flight, super-strength, light-up palms), he also falls in love with a human girl, whom he meets at his new high school in Paradise, Ohio. In fact, he meets Sarah (Dianna Agron) in the principal’s office, where she’s being disciplined for posting photos of students and teachers on her webpage, “Strangers in Paradise.” Little does she know how strange her new acquaintance will be. Like Edward (in the Twilights), John is a mix of mystery and melancholy, strength and vulnerability. Unlike Bella, Sarah is self-confident and un-desperate. She doesn’t need John; she likes him.
Still, their story brings the clichés. Sarah has an ex named Mark (Jake Abel), who’s also a football player and a bully, of course. He harasses John, and John’s new sidekick, a science nerd named Sam (Callan McAuliffe), until the Mogadorians show up and reveal just how trivial such high school rivalries can be. As eager as Sam is to help, it’s a very good thing that Number Six (Teresa Palmer) shows up, ready to fight and quick-witted too. The outcome of the climactic battle — on the football field! — suggests that DreamWorks has its eye on more numbers in a franchise.
Why It’s Fun
The special effects are minimal (John’s palms, and a few scars on his legs light up), but as he learns to use his powers, leaping from cliffs and suburban rooftops, he’s a little like Spider Man, as well as any other kid realizing what it means to grow faster and stronger than he used to be. That said, he’s one of those reluctant heroes, slow to embrace his powers and even less eager to serve as savior for his race.
Number Six is more aware of her gifts and also takes more pleasure in them, so the movie becomes exponentially livelier and less drearily linear when she shows up. Her independence, determination, and poise make you rather wish she was the focus here.
Who’s Going To Love It
The obvious target audience is fans of the young adult science fiction novel on which I Am Number Four is based, written under the pen name Pittacus Lore by James Frey and Jobie Hughes. (Some parents will remember Frey as the man whose A Million Little Pieces drew Oprah’s wrath when she learned it was not an autobiography as he claimed, but fiction.) The science fiction per se is unsurprising (neither is it spooky or provocative), more an excuse for raising the stakes of the high school romance than its own storyline.
Still, some viewers might appreciate that romance for its attention to details of Sarah’s generosity and ambition. (You do have to wonder how she was ever mixed up with a jerk like Mark, but then again, you know: she had to be in need of saving, somehow, for her to appreciate John fully.)
What To Be Aware Of
The first scene in the film shows the ruthlessness of the Mogadorians as they chase down and kill Number Three and his protector: the assault comes at night and the editing is fast, with a propulsive music soundtrack, though the scene cuts before Number Three — a young boy — is murdered. Thus the scene is plainly designed to engage young viewers with video-game experience, suggesting violence more than showing it.
Once the plot turns to John and Henri, the premise ensures they will be wary of a similar fate, but as you get to know them, and their father-son-like tension, you’re inclined to care what happens to them by the time the attack comes. As well, the film cuts frequently between John’s life in Ohio and the Mogadorians on their way to destroy him, so that you feel anxious for him. Typically, the violence John inflicts — against the Mogadorians or against the bully Mark — appears justified in a way the more brutal Mogadorian attacks are not.
The Mogadorians are obvious villains, with shaved heads and large weapons, and bring along with them a huge beast: they transport it in a truck and feed it dozens of frozen turkeys before they turn it loose on John (the scene at the supermarket checkout offers low-key comedy). The beast has an extended fight with John’s defender, a dog named Bernie Kosar (after the Cleveland Browns quarterback), which leaves the dog (not exactly a dog, more a shape-shifting alien posing as a dog) injured and bloody.
Number Six — with wild blond hair and a sharp sense of humor — metes out an especially stylized violence: she leaps, she wields large blades, and she delivers blows with flair — as the villains turn to dust when she kills them, Number Six might bring to mind Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The high school bullies — Mark and his exceedingly forgettable buddies — do their best to terrorize John and Sarah, in particular taunting them in school hallways (near the lockers, as is typical in such scenarios) and during a “Haunted Hayride” at the local fair.
John’s increasingly hard-to-hide difference makes some neighbors afraid, and they spread word that he and Henri are “terrorists,” allowing the movie’s critique of such stereotyping and prejudice based on ignorance and fear.
The film includes some language, including “bitch,” “a—hole,” a couple of “holy sh—s,” and, when Henri gets especially fed up with his young and willful charge, “Get your ass in the house.”
5 out of 10
I Am Number Four
Director: D.J. Caruso
Cast: Alex Pettyfer, Timothy Olyphant, Dianna Agron, Teresa Palmer, Callan McAuliffe
US Premiere: February 18, 2011
UK Premiere: February 23, 2011