Review: I Am Number Four

i am number four one sheetImagine the cast of Beverly Hills 90210 being dropped into Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters from the X-Men movies and you’ll have a sense of the uneven pastiche that is I Am Number Four

The film starts out with an exciting action scene where we see creepy aliens chase and kill Number Two in a lush jungle. After being outed as “some kind of freak”, we cut to teen John Smith (Alex Pettyfer) and his guardian Henri (Timothy Olyphant) throwing their belongings into their car and burning photographs and anything else that connects them to the Florida community. “This is the part I hate the most. The running.” John explains in a lengthy voiceover, as they head to the tiny town of Paradise, Ohio where they just happen to have a long-vacant house on the edge of town.

Then the backstory really gets confusing. John is one of nine alien kids from planet Lorien who have special “legacies” that make them extraordinarily powerful. Henri is a warrior assigned to guard John. The bad guys are also aliens, the Mogadorians, or “The Mogs”, and after invading Lorien they’re tracking down The Nine to kill them, apparently in preparation for invading Earth. How those two tie together? I’ve no clue. 
The real problem with I Am Number Four, however, is pacing. After an exciting first ten minutes, the film settles into a cliche-laiden teen school soap opera, including John, the lone outsider, the bullied science nerd Sam (Callan McAuliffe), the jock bully Mark (Jake Abel) and his posse, and super cute Sarah (Dianna Agron), who falls for John which — surprise! — angers ex-bf Mark. Yadda yadda, you’ve seen all these trite interchanges a thousand times before on the big screen.  After an hour or so of High School Drama, the Mogs finally show up, along with the sexy Number Six (Teresa Palmer), and the action finally resumes. 
I Am Number Four wasn’t a bad film, and it’s certainly entertaining, but the pacing was awful. If you’re a teen who digs action films, this might be a wonderful movie for you — and the cast are all pleasant to watch, men and women alike — but if you’re used to more sophisticated action fare where the backstory is skillfully woven into ongoing action and adventure, you’ll be yearning for something better.

This is a film that can almost serve as a new edition of the DVD-based game Scene It? where you have to identify the sources of scenes, sets and dialog. The opening was clearly inspired by the recent film Predators, I recognized a number of ideas inspired by the perpetual running story of the TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and there was also a generous dose of Twilight, both in the story and specific scenes in the film. By itself, inspiration isn’t a bad thing, but it’s up to the scriptwriters and director to turn those scenes and ideas into a coherent film.

There are some inspired ideas in I Am Number Four, including the chimera that turns out to be a second guardian for Number Four, shape-shifting in interesting, if predictable ways. Each legacy alien also has spiral-shaped tattoos that connect them with the other eight, and when one dies, the mark burns. An interesting idea that made me imagine a story where a boy has these marks but thinks they’re birthmarks. Why does one burn?  Why does another?  He slowly unravels that he’s an alien and that he’s connected to others through those markings on his skin. But that’s too subtle for this film.

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Sarah (Dianna Agron) and John (Alex Pettyfer) from “I Am Number Four”

Lifting an idea from the film Prince of Persia, we learn that the best way to kill Mogs is with a wicked scimitar with a glowing blue handle. In fact, the blue glow is some sort of crystal that also shows up as rocks with special, though unspecified, properties. Scimitars work, but a shotgun will put a Mogadorian down for the count too, if necessary.
Then there’s the issue of the ornate metal box covered in alien script that Henri has been saving for John to open when he’s old enough. It’s a memento from his father back on Lorien and it appears time and again – including during the completely nonsensical last scene – but John never opens it. What’s the point of a treasure box that’s never opened?  Maybe in the director’s cut we’ll learn the secret.
As is typical with this type of film, there’s a never-ending stream of improbable coincidences. John and Henri arrive at Paradise, OH and have a house that they’re already familiar with. John befriends Sam just to find out that Sam’s dad was abducted by aliens. Sarah posts photos of John on her Web site and as he’s looking at them they’re mysteriously removed. We see glimpses of Number Six throughout the film, but she doesn’t show up until the battle with the Mogs ensues. Good timing, that!
There are a few violent scenes that younger viewers may find upsetting, even with the film’s PG-13 rating. Gore doesn’t splatter on screen (a welcome relief) but there’s a scene where a UFO conspiracy Web nerd is killed by the Mogs that’s definitely disturbing, and another where a school janitor vanishes and we see his floor waxer leaving a wide red swath across the floor, presumably of blood.
If you like films about teens trying to fit in to the pecking order of a small town school, interwoven with an alien conspiracy story highlighted by entertaining action sequences, films that feature an all-beautiful cast, then you might get quite a kick out of I Am Number Four. It’s certainly a good “date night” film for high school kids.  But, ultimately, not much more than that, though it clearly ended with sequels in mind.

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