I Am Number Four: Because you don't deserve anything better

Illustration for article titled I Am Number Four: Because you dont deserve anything better

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.

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Spoilers ahead...

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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.)

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DISCUSSION

I watched it tonight. Hadn't read this article. Wishing I'd held out for something better as my first movie back in a decent theatre...

So let me liven this movie up a bit. Imagine taking this to it's logical conclusion. Eventually humans must find out about these aliens, and their little "we're sending five folks to hunt one person at a time" schtick will be over, since humanity has a proud tradition of overkill - we'll send five million people to hunt their five and accidentally shoot about half a dozen goth kids along the way, which will be hailed by the Huffington Post as a tragedy and shouldn't we try and understand these aliens better before we kill them? Not everyone ugly is evil, after all.

Durring this massive public trauma, a cute, young, up and coming blog reporter will team up with another one of the aliens - number five or seven - and together they'll discover that Blond Ambition's people actually committed genocide on the Voldemortians or set them loose from their alternate dimension whilst destroying it or something to deserve their fate, and there will be a traumatic "Noooo!" moment when the pretty alien kid realizes that his/her parents were really the bad guys, and he'll have to come to some sort of understanding where he tries to reason with the crazy ugly psycho aliens. Who will still want to kill him deader than a doornail, because the little pendants around the pretty alien's necks are really the key to restoring the dead race of ugly Voldemortians /opening the portal back home / whatever.

Eventually after much angst, loads of dead red shirt Army guys, and some spectacular special effects, it'll be discovered that the real power to restore the Voldemortians to their universe isn't in the pendants but in the kids, who will argue a lot about what to do. These ugly dudes are evil, after all. One kid will say they should help the Voldemortians because it will restore the balance their parents messed up, and one kid will argue that'll happen over his dead body, and the group will split up. Then something will happen and in their most desperate hour of need, the renegade will come back to help them after all, because family is the most important thing, etc. The remaining pretty aliens band together to open the portal / resurrect the dead, and the Voldemortians are restored to their rightful place, and they fly away into the stars all happy and leave the powerful alien kids on Earth to live normal lives with their nerdy human love interests. Who are under no pressure whatsoever, you know, it's just that their alien boyfriends are never ever going to have sex with anyone else, ever, so they'd better give it up. Or they're dooming their pretty alien pals to an eternity of angst. Like swans. Or something.