It's no accident that the hero of I Am Number Four has a number instead of a name. He's a cipher. One of the most generic heroes ever created, he has absolutely nothing to distinguish him from every other rebellious/angsty teenage hero ever. And he's the perfect hero for this "alien in high school" story, which is a die-cast plastic creation, almost devoid of anything memorable.
It's actually kind of hard to review a movie like I Am Number Four, because you want to look at it on its own terms. And it's not fair to expect intelligence, character development or even an original plot from this sort of film. Number Four is meant to be dumb, throwaway escapism — and if you expect anything more from it, then you, not the movie, are idiotic.
And yet, even by the standards of dumb movies, I Am Number Four is pretty wretched. In a nutshell, it's the unholy fusion of an especially dull episode of Dawson's Creek with one of the middle Harry Potter books. I will say that it's a serviceable film, that never goes off the rails. And there are a couple of great supporting characters.
But it's hard to ignore the cynicism that pervades every fiber of this movie. It's an adaptation of the first book from James Frey's factory farm, in which authors get paid a whopping $500 to churn out potboilers based on formulaic storylines. (A lot of the coverage of the James Frey experiment has focused on how unfair this is to authors, but really it's more unfair to readers, who get bombarded with shitty books.) The book got optioned before it was even finished, and Michael Bay rushed it into production, with this year's teen idol (Alex Pettyfer) and a Glee star (Dianna Agron) in the lead roles.
The whole thing feels like an attempt to create a teen blockbuster by numbers. And sad to say, the cynicism comes across on screen. Alex Pettyfer and Dianna Agron have as much chemistry together as two pet rocks. The superheroing is kind of blah, except for the final action scenes and a couple other moments.
So I Am Number Four is basically about an impossibly good looking alien dude, who's on the run from the aliens who trashed his home planet. He and his alien protector (Timothy Olyphant, call your agent) hide out in a small town called Paradise, OH. (In one of the movie's few memorable lines, Number Four remarks that the town should be called Ironic, OH instead.) Number Four is supposed to keep a low profile, because of the army of genocidal aliens searching for him. But he's way too rebellious/angsty for that, and instead he insists on doing everything possible to draw attention to himself, including dating the town hottie (Agron) and using his glowy-hand superpowers to beat up mean jocks.
Agron used to date the most popular football guy at the school, but then she decided to be an artsy photographer instead, putting photos up on her blog. You can tell she's really artsy, because she only takes photos using a film camera — luckily, the dark room at the high school can develop film almost instantly, even when you're being chased by aliens and cops and shapeshifting dinosaurs. She says a lot of stuff about how taking photos allows her to see into people and see the world and stuff.
Seriously, there is a lot of blondeness in this movie.
Meanwhile, there are these evil aliens, who have lizardy faces and bald heads. Let's call them the Voldemortians. And the Voldemortians tried to kill Number Four when he was a baby, but they failed, and that's why he went into hiding on Earth, along with eight other aliens, who are helpfully named after the numerical order in which the Voldemortians are supposed to kill them. Number Four doesn't actually have a scar on his forehead, but every time the Voldemortians kill one of his fellow aliens, he gets a burning scar on his leg, which is almost as good. (Oh, and the Voldemortians have cool tattoos on their heads.)
On the plus side, though, there are a couple of supporting characters who elevate the movie considerably. Sam (Callan McAuliffe), the nerdy kid whom Number Four saves from bullies, is pretty awesome, despite being the stock "UFO nut" character who appears in every other movie about aliens. Sam's dad was also a UFO nut, who disappeared, and Sam's obsessed with finding out why. As Sam observes at one point, "My whole life is one big X-Files episode." Whenever Sam is on screen, the movie gets a lot more fun, as he learns to brandish a shotgun, and later on a big-ass alien gun.
And then there's Number Six (Teresa Palmer, actually using her real accent). Almost every cool scene you've seen in the trailers involves Number Six — she really seems to enjoy kicking tons of ass, unlike Number Four, whose natural facial expression is either a scowl or a thousand-yard stare. Number Six pops up occasionally in the film, whenever we've gone too long without something blowing up or catching on fire, and she livens up the ending of the film a lot. She doesn't really have any personality, other than "butt-kicking sexy sidekick," but we'll take it.
Also, there are a few genuinely great, funny moments with the evil aliens — who actually are called the Mogadorians, not the Voldemortians. At one point, they buy every turkey in a supermarket and feed them to their pet monster. And they have a few other moments of just total goofiness mixed with sadism — it's kind of too bad we don't really get to see too much of these baddies, since their sick sense of humor is a major highlight.
So yeah, there are some great moments in this film, scattered here and there. And I guess it's a proud tradition in science fiction and fantasy to have main characters who are bland or unlovable, while everybody falls in love with the supporting characters. If you could have a whole film of just Sam and Number Six, that would probably be pretty great — although it might be kind of similar to Wanted. (Still not seeing why that would be bad.)
And this movie is definitely better than the book it's based on — some of the dumbest contrivances in the book get left out of the film. And a few things that don't quite hold water in the book get explained here, and Dianna Agron's Sarah gets a bit more development, even though it's still not much.
All in all, though, I Am Number Four is too dull, and Number Four himself is too unlikable, to be worth your time. All this movie really had to do was be another "superpowered coming of age" film like Percy Jackson, mixed with the misty romance of Twilight, and it would have been fine. Not great, but fine. But it's not fun enough for the former, and not romantic enough for the latter.
And it's hard not to see I Am Number Four as an object lesson in the evils of treating our escapist heroic fantasies like numbers in a rote formula. Something this uninspired, this calculated, deserves to fail horribly. I shudder to think of the sterile assembly line that will shudder to life if this movie makes a billion dollars. (Which it probably will.)