Why I’m So Glad I Am Not Number Four

Despite Alex Pettyfer's sexy smolder, this sloppy, cynical attempt to build a young-adult film franchise never catches fire

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John Bramley / Dark Castle Holdings / Dreamworks

What a bummer to be one of nine surviving teenaged aliens from the planet of Lorien. First your parents were killed and your planet devastated by the Mogadorians — hideous creatures with tiny teeth and gills and the fashion sense of skinheads — then you are sent to live on Earth with some grumpy guardian, who watches over you until you can develop your secret superpowers and take care of yourself. Every time you get close to making friends or hooking up with some attractive human, you have to move onto the next small town because the Mogadorians are totally tracking you.

If they find you, they’ll kill you and take away your special symbolic necklace (the purpose of which is never made clear). That’s already been the sad fate of Numbers One through Three. I Am Number Four, a movie adaptation of the best selling young adult sci-fi novel, concerns the plight of Number Four (the chiseled but unexciting Alex Pettyfer), the Mogadorians’ next numeric target. There are gaping holes in logic throughout this sloppy, cheap-looking mess from Disturbia director D.J. Caruso, but at least the Mogadorians do things in an orderly fashion.

The action begins as Four’s guardian Henri (a glowering Timothy Olyphant) relocates him from a fun life on the Florida coast to the ironically named Paradise, Ohio. As if leaving the beach wasn’t a big enough drag, Four now also has to go by the incredibly boring name of John Smith. You try telling the prettiest girl in your new high school your name is John Smith.

“Fine,” says a stung, skeptical Sarah (Dianna Agron, blissfully free of her Glee cheerleading costume) backing away from John. “You don’t want to tell me your real name.” Like John, Sarah is an outsider in Paradise, in that she takes arty photographs and wears a beret. He stares at her, attracted and yet agonized. He only goes to school because just sitting around waiting for the Mogadorians to come kill him is even more boring than Calculus. But taskmaster Henri has made it clear he should avoid being noticed. This is hard when you walk the corridors smoldering like an Abercrombie & Fitch model.

Sarah turns on her heel and walks away. But Cupid’s arrow has already struck; when a Lorien loves, he or she loves forever. “We aren’t like humans,” Henri says. Ouch. Way to insult your whole audience. (I must point out that when it comes to obnoxious cell phone use, Loriens are as bad as human teenagers or worse. With its distinctive trills and chirps, John’s iPhone is so thoroughly incorporated into the movie that I started to feel my first ever waves of dislike for my own device.) It is true that humans don’t have embarrassing beams of light coming out of their palms the way John does, or a newfound ability to turn cars on with their minds, or burning scars that suddenly appear on their shins. This is the kind of disconcerting supernatural stuff that raises a lot of questions, questions you might put to Henri if you were John. Television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for instance — another super strong, alienated teen in high school — regularly demanded answers from her watcher, Giles. But I Am Number Four is not big on exposition, even though Marti Noxon, a Buffy veteran, is one of its three credited screenwriters. The attitude seems to be, We’ll get to your silly questions in the sequel. In the meantime, let’s blow stuff up. Or, in the most priceless lapse of logic in the movie, let’s have our hero and his babe pause to develop and print a roll of soul-revealing photographs while menacing aliens surround the building. Then blow things up. The special effects look about as cheesy as those on Buffy, where the character development and emotional depth were so good and deep that it hardly
mattered when the effects were lame.

Whatever happened to building an audience beyond fans of the book? The movie version of I Am Number Four is a blatant, cynical pitch for an unearned franchise, made by people who seem to think the words “bestseller” and “young adult” are enough to guarantee a Harry Potter-like box office payout. It’s not. Look at Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lighting Thief, the first of Rick Riordan’s highly successful YA series, which was turned into a movie that came out early last year. There are no indications yet that there will be another. The trials and tribulations of the Earth-bound Loriens — sold, incidentally, as a movie treatment first and only later as a novel — are also intended to be a series, but the second book hasn’t even come out yet. Titled The Power of Six, it’s due in August and will be published under the same pen name, Pittacus Lore — and presumably will have been cowritten by the same duo, Jobie Hughes and A Million Little Pieces author James Frey. Frey doesn’t publicly admit to penning the first book in the series; it’s probably wise to let Pittacus take the rap for the movie as well.