Teen angst, this is my friend, aliens. Aliens, meet my old pal, teen angst. That’s how I imagine the introductions going were, you know, teen angst and aliens actual people. There are all manner of films about angsty teen vampires, angsty teen werewolves, angsty teen wizards, and, hopefully soon, angsty teen necromancers. It was only a matter of time before someone paired the story of an angsty teen with the drama of an alien invasion. Thinking about it, it seems inevitable, and a little shocking that it hasn’t happen sooner. But happen it does in D.J. Caruso’s new film “I Am Number Four”.
Literary lightning rod James Frey, who famously pissed off Oprah by fabricating most of his memoir (I’m surprised she hasn’t had him ‘disappeared’ yet), decided to dip his fingers into the ever-expanding young adult literary market. Written with Jobie Hughes, under the pen name Pittacus Lore, “I Am Number Four” is the first book in a proposed six book series. Frey has also set up what is being called a “literary assembly line”. You can read the New York Magazine article here. It’s vaguely horrifying.
While I haven’t read the book, the film is a blatant attempt to cash in on a lucrative market. “I Am Number Four”, the movie, is a paint-by-numbers supernatural teen story, this time juxtaposed against a science fiction background. Number Four (Alex Pettyfer), aka John Smith, is one of nine children of a dead alien world called Lorien. The people who destroyed his planet, the Mogadorians, are hunting down Four and his ilk (for some reason they have to be killed in numerical order, but why is never explained). Each alien teen is given a protector and forced to hide. Four and his guardian, Henri (Timothy Olyphant, who begins the film with an unfortunate hairstyle) move from town to town, trying to remain anonymous. It’s hard. Four is always the new kid, he never has any friends, and he’s sad and just wants to party and have friends and be normal. But he’s not normal; he’s different and special. You’ve seen it before. He’s dreamy (he can do back flips on a jet ski), but troubled (his home life with Henri is far from perfect), and also full of, you guessed it, teenage angst.
After a debacle in Florida, Four and Henri flee to the small town of Paradise, Ohio. Who would think that a movie town named Paradise might not actually be a paradise? Four encounters all sorts of obstacles, but along the way he develops some sweet mutant powers, like flashlight hands and some newly minted parkour skills; gets a geeky sidekick named Sam (Callan McAuliffe), who’s father was abducted by a UFO; and lands a girlfriend, Sarah (Dianna Agron). She’s an outsider, too. You can tell she’s deep because she takes photographs, writes in a journal, and says things like that she sees better through her camera. Of course there’s a bully and his goons, and of course they’re on the football team. If teen movies have taught us nothing it is that something about the act of playing football, more than any other sport, makes you evil. Remember that.
Despite Henri’s advice, Four falls in love with Sarah (which leads to the most groan inducing line in a movie full of groan inducing lines: “we don’t love like humans, it’s forever”, delivered by Timothy Olyphant in a faux gritty man voice). It’s hard to keep a low profile in a small town where you’re dating the weird girl, friends with the sci-fi nerd, feuding with the captain of the football team/son of the sheriff, and you have light bulbs built into the palms of your hands. Try to stay under the radar in similar circumstances, I dare you. Eventually the bad guys show up, which only compounds the problems caused by teen angst, raging hormones, and a hidden secret alien identity.
Every step of the way you feel “I Am Number Four” trying to set things up as a series of films. The result is that it never feels like a movie on it’s own, it feels like a pilot for a TV show, or a chapter in a book (which it is in its own way). That’s all well and good, but the movie always feels like a fragment, there is no complete internal story. Take a series like “Harry Potter”, where there is a larger, overarching narrative to the series, but each individual installment tells a complete story. “I Am Number Four” never achieves that. Sure there is rising action, and a climactic battle scene, but the ending feels arbitrary, like they just decided it was time to stop because it was time.
The Mogadorians are regrettable villains. Apparently they’re bad simply because they’re bad. They don’t colonize, they don’t enslave, they’re not after resources, nothing. They destroy worlds, that’s what they do; there isn’t any deeper motivation than that. With their weird nose-gills, neo-tribal head tattoos, and flowing black trench coats, and it’s difficult not to laugh every time you see one onscreen. The leader spends most of his time channeling the coked out spirit of Gary Busey, which is kind of rad, and there is one moment where the Mogadorians pull out something that looks like a new jack “Phantasm” ball, but that’s about it.
Watching “I Am Number Four” you get the distinct feeling that they’re not even trying. Every step of the way it feels like things happen because that’s how things are supposed to happen in a supernatural teen story (from reading about the book, this seems to be the general conceit). As a film, it’s better than “Twilight”, but that’s not saying much. Some of the action sequences aren’t pretty good, and “I Am Number Four” will probably make a crap ton of money at the box office (though if the reaction by the audience at the screening, made up primarily of the teenage target audience, is any indication, maybe not—they laughed harder than anyone at the cheesy moments that were supposed to be serious).
It’ll be curious to see how “I Am Number Four” plays out as a series, in book form as well as onscreen. Usually the books have all been published before they start cranking out movies, or at least multiple books in a series have been published. In this case, however, the book didn’t come out until there was already a movie deal in place, and with the apparent feud between Hughes and Frey, who knows when the next book, and consequently the next film, will appear. It is entirely possible that the most interesting part of this saga may not unfold anywhere near a movie screen or the pages of a book.