People want to blame TWILIGHT for the spate of weak sauce teen-oriented films coming out, and although I'd like to join them in the blame I can't. I blame Joseph Campbell.
Or rather, the watered-down take on Campbell that seems to pass for character motivation in too many films these days. It's all paint-by-numbers plot and pretty actors and characters who have no relation to how people really are in real life. I'm a sucker for the whole monomyth story when it's done right, but it's been done so often and without the scope necessary to pull it off that it all blends into a blob of mediocrity.
In I AM NUMBER FOUR, we're not even treated to the major event that sets the plot in motion. It's all told in exposition, as "John Smith" (Alex Pettyfer) and Henri (Timothy Olyphant) are on the run. Seems "Smith" is one of the last of his homeworld Lorien (yeah, yeah), killed off by an evil race called the Mogadorians that seeks to wipe his kind off the face of the galaxy. John moves from place to place, avoiding any connections and trying to blend in so as not to be recognized. For some reason that's not fully explained in the film - or if it is I missed it, this movie's so badly paced that's quite possible - the final nine of Lorien have to be killed in order. As the movie begins, in a quite nice action setpiece, the third Lorien is killed in a jungle and Smith instantly knows about it when a strange brand burns itself on his leg, right in the middle of when he's about to make some time with a beach hottie. Hate it when that happens. So John and Henri are on the run again, and then it happens - the voice-over, and when I heard that it pretty much killed most of my interest in the film.
You see, some of the things John's describing sound interesting, and as you hear it you think "Gee, I might have liked to have seen that." The destruction of an alien race, a chosen few born to save the galaxy, being hunted until they reached Earth ... this is all Superman-inspired stuff, but instead of going the epic route, the script decides to turn into a trite coming-of-age fish-out-of-water movie. I'm not even entirely sure of the motivations of the villains, except as soon as they walk on screen it's obvious they're the bad guys. (Can't bad guys in movies like this at least try to blend in?)
John and Henri return to Paradise, Ohio for a few days, new dog in tow, and John insists on going to school, due to his boredom and loneliness. There he meets Sarah (Dianna Agron), a once-popular girl from school who we know is now quirky and weird because she likes to take photographs. John also meets Sam (Callan McAuliffe), a bullied teen whose father was apparently abducted by aliens. "My life is an episode of THE X-FILES", he says, and I'm not entirely sure the audience this film is aimed at will even get the reference. Although John isn't supposed to form attachments, he decides he wants to stay in Paradise no matter what Henri says, and fight any comers who try to kill him. Complicating matters are the facts that he's falling in love with Sarah, he seems to be gaining strange new powers, like light shooting from his hands and physical capabilities he's never had before, and that Sam may actually have clues to John's past after all. All the while, the enigmatic Number Six (Teresa Palmer) comes closer to John - will she help John fight the Mogs and achieve his destiny? And will we give a shit either way?
The story, based on the young adult novel by Pittacus Lore, is your standard STAR WARS wannabe Joseph Campbell hero stuff. The script by Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, and Marti Noxon seems to go through the motions - we all know the plot points that are supposed to be hit at each moment. It's interesting that Moxon was involved in the script - at times you can feel the film trying to hit those Buffy-esque moments and not quite making it. There's so much cliché in the plot points that you can see what's coming next from space. Unfortunately Caruso shoots the action in the quick-edit darkly shot manner common in too many action films, and what should be thrilling turns into just plain confusing. That's unfortunate, because the cinematography's by Guillermo Navarro, who we all know has shot some phenomenal films before. There's some movies you see and think. "That wasn't long enough," and you mean that in a good way, because the film transported you somewhere else and you want to stay where it took you a little longer. In this case, you want the film to be longer because there just isn't enough story for what you're seeing, and by the halfway point, you no longer care.
Some good points about the film - Alex Pettyfer isn't bad. He's engaged in his performance and isn't just reading dialogue. Not just a pretty face, you can tell this actor will likely be successful later on. Same goes for McAuliffe, who was so good in last year's FLIPPED and is believable here. The same can't be said for Agron, who just doesn't seem interested in what she's doing and her scenes of peril don't have much of any impact because she just looks bored. Olyphant does the best with what he's given, but he's not in the film very much - thus following the Old Sage Joseph Campbell template. We're told he's John's protector but we never see exactly how he protects John. He doesn't seem to be very good at it. Number Six is basically supposed to look hot and blow shit up, so Palmer's suited for what she does, I guess.
I hate to bash D. J. Caruso's direction here - he's a good director, as THE SALTON SEA proves. He gets good performances out of most of the actors, even when they're reciting some fairly ridiculous dialogue. But the story never engaged me. It needed to be bigger in scale. Sometimes exposition just doesn't cut it. We're never given the stakes in this movie except in exposition, and so it's very difficult to care why these aliens are after these kids. We're given some plot point that after these Nine are all gone that the Mogs are going to turn their attention to conquering the Earth, but since we never see what they're capable of, other than going after the last of the Lorien survivors, they don't seem like very formidable villains.
I haven't read the book, so it may be larger in scale than what the film turned out to be. But I have the feeling it's not. They even manage to throw a dog in danger to gain audience sympathy - although the dog turns out to be one of John's helpers with a nice reveal late in the film. Pettyfer is someone to watch, for certain, and I'm sure a lot of people worked hard on this film, hoping to duplicate the success of TWILIGHT. Thing is, they should have tried much harder to be their own thing. There are moments in the film that I thought that had potential to be really interesting, if only the filmmakers had thought to expand the scope of the film, and not leave it to simple narration. Too bad.