I Am Number Four

I was uhm-ing and ahh-ing about reviewing this one given it’s a film with a rather high level of tween-girl appeal, and I didn’t want to tarnish my stout-yet-manly Franco Nero-in-Enter the Ninja image. But then Keith admitted to watching Red Riding Hood and I figured why not? Teleport City is after all built on inclusivity, which is the next best thing to build something on after rock and roll. So for the site’s no doubt large but silent tween girl fanbase, and anyone else who was just browsing and saw the picture of a cute girl walking away from an explosion, here it is; I Am Number Four.

Our study subject is the adaptation of a young adult novel by the excellently-named Pittacus Lore. Despite sounding like the lead character in a Nic Cage movie, Lore is in fact a pseudonym for the rather more mundanely-monikered James Frey and Jobie Hughes. Frey may be familiar to you for the mountain of controversy dropped on his alleged memoir of drug addiction and recovery, A Million Little Pieces. This was chosen as a subject for the all-powerful Oprah’s Book Club, and inevitably shot to the top of the bestseller lists. When it was later revealed that the book was heavily embellished at best, mostly fiction at worst, Frey was summoned to appear on Oprah’s show and given a dressing down by the lady herself.

I Am Number Four was the first book from Frey’s company Full Fathom Five, founded by the author specifically to cash in on the young adult/teen market opened up by (financial) successes like Twilight and The Hunger Games. The idea is that Frey employs and ‘mentors’ young writers who knock out high-concept YA novels, and who then receive a somewhat nebulous amount of any ‘revenue’. Hughes was the first of Full Fathom Five’s writers, collaborating on I Am Number Four, the first in a series dreamed up by Frey named The Lorien Legacies. Apparently initial publishing interest in the book was limited until a bidding war for the movie rights blew up between JJ Abrams, he of TV, Super 8 and Star Trek reboot fame, and the unholy nexus of Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg.

If Frey sounds like kind of a douchebag (and if you search out the excellent New York magazine article ‘James Frey’s Fiction Factory’, you’ll find plenty of evidence to support that assessment), he’s got absolutely nothing on Michael Bay. As a fan of blockbuster cinema, someone who’s spent more time than any person should defending the likes of McG and Brett Ratner as “not all that bad, really”, who adored GI Joe: The Rise of COBRA as the greatest movie Cannon Films never made, who counts Con Air among the crowning achievements in cinema history, who even found things to like about the recent goofy blockbuster dud Battleship, I say this in all seriousness: Michael Bay is the Antichrist.

He is the only filmmaker capable of getting me angry enough to scream foul-mouthed abuse at every name in the credits of one of his movies. Seriously, after I had endured the cinematic hate crime that was Transformers: Dark of the Moon, even the craft services company got a “f**k you!!” The guy generates levels of misanthropy, homophobia, misogyny and racism normally only found in people who murder hobos in their basement. That he chooses to express these feelings primarily in a film franchise based on a series of toy robots for children, basically tells you everything you need to know about what a colossal scumbucket the man is. Inevitably then, it was Bay who won the bidding war and put I Am Number Four, the movie, into production.

To play the book’s protagonist Bay went with an English actor named Alex Pettyfer. Pettyfer got his break courtesy of another slice of kid-lit. Anthony Horowitz’s popular adventures of a 15-year old spy named Alex Rider led to 2006’s film adaptation Alex Rider: Stormbreaker. Pettyfer was cast as the titular hero, and was something of a mixed blessing. He was a good fit because he looked like a kid who could handle all manner of spy action; bad because he also looked like he’d enjoy nothing better than stealing lunch money from unempowered, nerdy kids of above-average intelligence. Exactly the type of kids in fact who read the Alex Rider books.

Alex Rider: Stormbreaker was a significant flop, taking less than a million dollars in the US and failing to translate into a franchise. Pettyfer followed this up with Brit horror film Torment, where he played an unpleasant high school jock who bullied a classmate into suicide, and Beastly, where he plays an unpleasant high school jock (hmm, seeing a pattern here) who gets cursed by a witch and is forced to hide his hideous appearance. Yes, Beastly was a Twilight-inspired updating of Beauty and the Beast based on — oh look — based on a young adult novel. Pettyfer’s character is transformed from good-looking kid to… um… good-looking kid with a shaved head and facial tattoos. I assume this teaches him a valuable life lesson about something, like how now he can get into cooler bars and date the REALLY nasty Goth girls.

Beastly did OK-if-not-great in the US, but barely received a release anywhere else. Perhaps Pettyfer’s third bite of the young adult cherry (um, as it were) would prove more appealing. Here he goes against type as a fairly-OK high school jock who is actually a space alien with super powers. Which I guess is range of a sort. At the start of the movie he’s hanging out in Florida, doing cool jet ski stunts and making time with sun-kissed babes. Generally he’s living the charmed life of a high-school kid of that ‘no specific age but definitely NOT 21, which incidentally is how old the actor is’ kind. One evening he’s swimming with a cute girl who’s pointing out her favourite constellations, because that’s just something cute girls like to do. “Sorry,” he says, “I got a D in Astronomy.” A D IN ASTRONOMY! BUT HE’S FROM SPACE! With writing this sharp, the movie will be a breeze.

Unfortunately for our hero, just as he’s about to get lucky one of his alien brethren is killed, which causes a painful bright light to suddenly appear on his leg. The girl is horrified and runs up the beach screaming. Now I admit it’s been a while since I was a teen, or even a twentysomething. But would today’s youth, with their reality televisions and their podcaster players, really run away screaming “he’s a mutant freak from space!” because someone was suddenly in pain with an ill-defined bright thing on their leg? I mean, I wasn’t expecting the girl to say “hmm, your sudden discomfort accompanied by a glowing protuberance on the skin is reminiscent of a jellyfish attack, yet bioluminescent species are less common in Florida waters than say Porpita porpita, or blue button jellyfish, and no mistake. Would you like a cooling towel?” but the gal’s reaction is extreme to say the least.

Anyway, now that sudden limb pain has revealed our hero as the alien monstrosity he truly is, he and his also-alien protector Henri (Timothy Olyphant giving the Bill Paxton-iest performance of his life) must disappear and leave town for pastures new. We learn that the aliens are Loriens, a species all but wiped out by their arch-nemeses the hilariously-named Mogodorians. A few specially gifted children along with their protectors fled to Earth, but the mogs followed and are killing them in order of… um. I’m not sure. Age? Shoe size, possibly? But in any case, the special kids can only be killed in order, which begs the question – can they be killed OUT of order? Why not lock the first two in a bunker somewhere while the rest go out and kick the mogodorians’ asses?

So anyway, Henri and his charge arrive in the town of Paradise, Iowa, which is kind of a shithole. See, it’s the TOWN WITH THE IRONIC NAME. Especially since the good guys were just in the REAL paradise. Once there, our hero (who is alien number four, if the title wasn’t enough of a giveaway) assumes the name John Smith. Because let’s face it, if you’re a stranger in town and you want to avoid being in any way conspicuous, a name like John Smith is sure to throw off any kind of suspicion. And because when you’re lying low, the obvious place to do it is somewhere that all newcomers will be scrutinised and obsessed over, John enrolls in the local high school.

It doesn’t take long for John to encounter the quirky-yet-pretty girl Sarah, who we know is Terribly Deep because she’s into photography and capturing who People Really Are and all that stuff. Sarah is played by Dianna Agron from TV’s Glee, a show I attempted to watch because my wife is a devotee. I gave up pretty quickly, partly because I hated all of the characters and partly because I don’t find the music of Journey so edgy and dangerous that I need a bunch of bland teenagers to tone it down for me. Agron was pretty unremarkable on the few episodes I saw, but she does have one very significant thing going for her, which is that she is not Lea Michele.

John also meets the inevitable bullied, geeky kid Sam (Callan McAuliffe), and his nemesis football jock Mark James (Jake Abel). Since John takes a liking to Sam, he also incurs the wrath of Mark. I get that every Peter Parker needs his Flash Thompson, but in this case, John looks more like Flash than ‘Flash’ does. Even if he didn’t have space alien powers, John could clearly pound Mark into a small puddle of goop. One day during class, John’s hands start giving off some sort of weird blue light. He hides out in a closet until Henri arrives and explains that this is one of John’s powers, or legacies as the Loriens call them, manifesting for the first time. John calms down and generously doesn’t point out that a good time for Henri to have mentioned the powers would have been ANY TIME BEFORE JUST NOW!

Anyway, John is pursuing a romantic interest (which is a much nicer term than stalking) Sarah, which leads to an exposition-heavy dinner with her mom and dad. Sarah reveals her folks just don’t understand the amazing depth of her work, and want her to get into wedding photography, which is surely where the big money is — this town must have a good four or five weddings a year. Agron and Pettyfer were a couple in real life during the production of the movie, but their on-screen chemistry is somewhat lacking. Their relationship is clearly annoying Mark, who has a longtime thing for Sarah, and booby-traps John’s locker with a paint bomb. Because as well as being the least threatening high school jock in history, he’s apparently also the Joker.

Henri meanwhile is looking into what happened to Sam’s dad, who disappeared while searching for evidence of ‘ancient astronauts’ — i.e. other Loriens. At this point Olyphant looks rather irritated to still be in the movie, and I can’t honestly blame him. John is getting all moody on him, and then reveals his powers when a bunch of Mark’s buddies gang up on him and Sarah at the big Halloween festival, or something. Since Mark’s dad is the sheriff, this is a little too public for Henri’s liking and he demands they leave town. John refuses, because he loves Sarah with a pure, deep and crucially never-ending space alien love. Meanwhile, a video clip of John’s glowing leg has appeared on the internet and been seen by both the mogodorians and another Lorien, Number Six (Teresa Palmer). They both somehow use this to track John and Henri to Paradise, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense since both already visited our heroes’ Florida beach hut earlier in the film. Hell, Six even blew it up just so she could do the whole walk-away-from-the-blast-in-slow-motion thing.

The guys hosting the video clip on their “the aliens are here!” website are in league with the mogodorians, and they kidnap Henri. John (reluctantly bringing Sam along) stages a rescue, but Henri dies protecting his protege. After a “the power was in you all along!” pep talk, John goes back to town to find he’s been branded an outlaw by the sheriff, and the mogodorians have arrived. Fortunately Six chooses just that moment to show up for a little additional firepower in the big final action scene, before she, John and Sam must leave town to find the other aliens, rescue Sam’s Dad and wonder why they never got a sequel.

Reading this back, I’ve been fairly harsh on I Am Number Four, but for all its many, many (many!) faults I did actually kind of enjoy it. The premise is pretty silly, the bad guys are ridiculous both in name and appearance and the acting ranges from slumming it (Olyphant) to wooden, but I was fairly entertained throughout. Sure, the script is carved from a vein of pure cliche, and the whole teen-friendly “I’m a hot hunky jock with super powers who falls in love with you FOR EVAR!” thing is kind of cringeworthy, it’s still better than Twilight‘s mix of rapey-stalker Mormon allegory and abstinence porn.

One of the things I did rather like is that some thought had clearly gone into the super-powered action parts. Choreography comes courtesy of Brad Allen, an alumnus of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team, and his work is very enjoyable. Though there isn’t a whole lot of fighting to break up the scenes of John and Sarah staring at each other, there are some nicely inventive flourishes in the way John and Six use their powers, and a cute moment when Henri shows even a ‘normal’ person can take down a superbeing with the right skills and knowledge.

So despite my reservations I was left wanting more, waiting for resolutions that would have come in the adaptation of the sequel book, The Power of Six. Sadly the follow-up seems highly unlikely — one, because the movie didn’t make back its budget, and two, because Alex Pettyfer was also in the running for the biggest jerk involved with this project. He and Agron had been dating during production, but news broke of an acrimonious split the day after I Am Number Four hit theatres; basically the kiss of death for a movie aimed at the tween romance market. Reports that Pettyfer was borderline-stalking a terrified Agron afterwards didn’t really help his rep. Neither did an interview where he made some unsavoury remarks about women in general, and dissed the Hollywood system that was employing him into the bargain.

A pity, given that even with all its problems, and with my deep-seated loathing of anything tainted by Michael Bay, the Twilight franchise or Glee, I would have paid to see a sequel. Just not very much.

Release Year: 2011 | Country: United States | Starring: Alex Pettyfer, Timothy Olyphant, Teresa Palmer, Dianna Agron, Callan McAuliffe, Kevin Durand, Jake Abel, Jeff Hochendoner, Patrick Sebes, Greg Townley, Reuben Langdon | Screenplay: Alfred Gough, Miles Millar | Director: D. J. Caruso | Cinematography: Guillermo Navarro | Music: Trevor Rabin