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I Am Number Four

February 19, 2011
I Am Number Four

I Am Number Four is well-labeled as “Twilight with aliens”. Like that movie series, it’s adapted from a young-adult novel with aspirations to kickstart a series. It’s also every bit as vapid and pandering. Almost every teenager feels out of place, like a lost space alien marooned alone in their place. The difference, of course, is that “John Smith” (Alex Pettyfer) actually is one.

John is one of the last survivors of the planet Lorien, overrun by the belligerent Mogadorians. Like the other eight children, he is in hiding on Earth, and provided with a protector to take care of him (Timothy Olyphant) until he reaches adulthood and comes into his “legacies” — super-powers that for him include heightened strength and reflexes as well as telekinesis and glow-in-the-dark palms. For some reason that’s never really explained, they can only be killed in numerical sequence; the first three have been hunted down by the Mogadorians, and John — wait for it — is number four.

John’s latest hideout is a small town in western Ohio, where he meets Quinn from Glee, though now she’s called Sarah (Dianna Agron). She has her own social issues and escapist desires, which John quickly becomes entangled in. Obviously, this is not necessarily the best strategy for avoiding notice, especially in these Internet-connected days.

Like John, Sarah has basically no identifying features beyond the sketchiest outlines that can apply to pretty much any teenager. And this is part and parcel of the genre, since if they stood out in any way it would be that much harder for a miscellaneous teenage audience member to identify with. Also important for the teen-girl audience, it’s made clear that unlike humans John will only ever fall in love once, forever, with Sarah.

It’s not entirely bleak, though; Olyphant plays his part with his usual entertaining smirk, although it’s heavily watered-down from his role in Justified. Teresa Palmer does a great job as Number Six, tooling around looking for the other numbers on her Ducati and seriously carving up some Mogadorians along the way. And Kevin Durand is one of the best sci-fi villains I’ve seen in a long time. Still, except for Durand’s work the characters are all pretty much stock pieces.

It’s not really a surprise that the movie’s plot and characters play so directly towards their audience. After all, the original novel came out of the studio of James Frey, who he pulled the same trick on Oprah, spinning a story in A Million Little Pieces that would tell her audience exactly what they’d want to hear.

That all said, there’s one place that I Am Number Four really shines, and that’s as an action movie. It’s unevenly paced for the most part, but once the final sequence kicks off it explodes all over the screen. The hand-to-hand work is tight, and the gunplay — with hi-powered alien weaponry, of course — is exciting enough to make up for all the long, dragged-out exposition earlier.

At the very least, this movie manages to avoid the worst aspects of Twilight. John doesn’t “sparkle” like Edward, and Sarah isn’t such an obvious Mary-Sue as Bella is. Nobody in sight is perfectly good, and nobody outside of the Mogadorians is perfectly evil. Of course there’s a lot of wish-fulfillment and oversimplified, broad-brush painting going on, but hey, it’s an action movie.

Worth it: it’s a decent enough action flick at the end. For the rest, if you’re a teenager in need of justification for your myopically-teenaged worldview, great.
Bechdel test: fail.

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