REVIEW: Let's Just Shoot I Am Number Four Back Into Space, OK?
Anyone who has ever been a child or played with one is familiar with the narrative universe of I Am Number Four, a teen alien/superhero/savior/vampire mash-up that's all guts and no glory. In it, things happen in an order that's too erratic to be called a sequence and yet too processed to amount to much of a story. Props, plot points, and ass-saving contingencies erupt only on the point of crisis, as they do in child's play: Oh you're an alien from a far-off planet? Well I am a different alien sent to kill you! Oh you suddenly have superpowers to deflect my intergalactic weapons? Well guess what--I have a monster Fire-proof shield!
Another way of looking at the un-structure of I Am Number Four, director D.J. Caruso's follow up to Eagle Eye: It's tailored more to a gamer's eyes and expectations than a moviegoer's. On the whole the scenes play like levels, with one connecting in only the most basic way to the next. Despite putting its premise right there in the title (the film is adapted from the first book in a series created in James Frey's Young Adult fiction sweatshop), the set-up is woefully skimpy: After opening on the gruesome murder of a fawn-like adolescent boy by some sort of steampunk ghoul, we turn to the strapping, 17-year-old figure of John Smith (Alex Pettyfer). John's catching waves and bird-dogging betties in Florida, a beach idyll that ends when a wicked-scary undertow brands his leg with a third Billabong-esque insignia. That means he's next.
Well, OK, if he says so -- which he does, during a long stretch of narration that accompanies John and his alien guardian Henri (Timothy Olyphant) on their drive from Florida to Ohio. But if I were a cop, I'd say John's story doesn't add up: John's people -- the Loriens -- were chased off of their home planet by mean Mogadorians why, now? And they want to kill the remaining five how come? Those hoping for even a hot-air conceit to keep them afloat are better off clapping onto Pettyfer's cheekbones.
That those cheekbones are visible from space throws John's claim of knowing how to blend in into serious doubt. A bad bleach job is his big plan for eluding the "Mogs" while he hangs out in Paradise and finds his peers in invisibility at the local high school. First up is Sarah (Dianna Agron), who wears berets despite being soap opera beautiful and therefore has the soul of an artist and not a vapid teen queen. Second is Sam (Callan McAuliffe), a science nerd bullied by a football posse led by Mark (Jake Abel), whose dad is the sheriff, don't you know! Together they run this town! Actually, you don't know -- not until that detail becomes ludicrously convenient. Turns out Mark is also holding a roman candle for Sarah, and his jealousy takes a big wiz on the spark between the new guy and the lippy outcast. Agron and Abel are comfortable enough in their respective molds, but Pettyfer joins the "Maybe if I hold my mouth really still none of the British will spill out" school of American accents, a choice that helps make John stiffer than an old pair of gym socks.
There's a chunk in the middle of I Am Number Four that threatens to lock the film into a more promising, if familiar, register: John struggles to master his "legacies" in Paradise -- the powers he didn't know he had, and which make themselves known at in opportune times, like science class. His palms glow with a halogen stigmata that can freeze, lift, and throttle things in its path. Uninspired as superpowers go, but the Teen Wolf-ish secret he's keeping -- particularly from Sarah -- is at least a workable metaphor in an otherwise scattershot narrative. The couple's stroll through a haunted house at the local fair is freaky fun, but the sequence proves an anomaly, a hit-and-run accident of dramatic tension. Clichés are pulled as needed from a master list: John's kind fall in love only once, and forever; John has a higher purpose on Earth that he doesn't understand yet; Blonde chicks in black leather are pretty much a no-lose situation.
"Number Six" (Teresa Palmer) crashes the final scenes wearing "No. 3" from the Dominatrix Barn catalogue, her presence itself a non sequitur during the random showdown at the high school. John and his crew (including a pup who's more faithful than he seems) take on the Mogs, whose number shrinks and expands at Caruso's whim. The finale is effects-driven and often impenetrably dark, in producer Michael Bay's house style. Though Palmer is an action-chick eyeful, not much about the climax works, from the chopped-salad clashes to the almost total lack of interest in who is left standing. In other words: A Bay franchise is born.