Silver Screen: I Am Number Four *

Silver Screen: I Am Number Four  *
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Silver Screen: I Am Number Four *
Bryan Miller

There's something particularly sad about a dimestore superhero.

Despite what seems like an endless supply of marquee-name comic-book heroes waiting to become fodder for the next summer blockbuster, the pool is actually pretty shallow. More to the point, nearly every superhero to helm a major franchise, even ones still in development (Green Lantern, Thor, the Avengers), were created prior to 1970; they just aren't making them anymore.

Or rather, they just aren't making them as successfully, but that hasn't stopped comic-book writers, novelists, and screenwriters from trying to find their own commodifiable crusader. The results tend to show why not even comic-book creators have had a lot of luck making new American icons: Jumper, Hancock, Sky High. Among the few successes are Robocop and Sam Raimi's Darkman, both darker 1980s movies that spawned anemic sequels.

I Am Number Four, the latest flagrant attempt to kickstart a franchise, is as undeniably off-brand as store-label cola and cereal in clear plastic bags (Baron Von Cocoa! Tasty Totems! Admiral Fiber!). In the aforementioned failures, one of the central problems has been an emphasis on tangled mythology, which, when executed poorly, doesn't develop a layered, unique world for the characters to live in but rather just winds up overexplaining a simple conflict and weighing down the story.

That's certainly the case here, as I Am Number Four seems to spend its entire running time trying to catch us up to speed, as though we'd walked into the sequel (I Am Number Four: Two? I Am Number Five?). What we learn early on, via voiceover narrative and several pages worth of expository dialogue, is that our superpowered protagonist John (Alex Pettyfer, a lifeless pretty boy who makes Paul Walker seem like Brando) is an alien, one of nine chosen members of a race that died out when their planet Lorien was colonized by the evil Mogadorians.

The nine remaining children of Lorien are assigned bodyguards and forced to live in hiding on Earth, waiting for their unique abilities to manifest themselves in preparation for the day they can fight back against the invaders and restart their race. But the Mogadorians are closing in on them, ferreting the kids out and then killing them in numerical order, for no discernible reason. Our hero John, of course, is right in line after not-so-lucky Number Three fails to use his blue-glowing magical dagger thingie to snuff the Mogadorian hunters before they sic a monster on him. Now John (known on Telemundo as Yo Soy Numero Quatro) and his protector settle into a new town hoping to outrun their pursuers.

As for the Mogadorians, they look like Dark City knockoffs with sharp teeth, plus silly looking gills on their noses. The horror-movie motif winds up being pretty dissonant when, by the end of the film, the bad guys are sprinting around a high-school football field shooting comically oversized laser guns.

I don't even want to get into the subplot about the magical alien dog, who may or may not be secretly menacing. Either way, what are supposed to be ominous shots of an adorable pooch spying on the protagonists represents the silliest use of a canine since the psychic dog in The Number Twenty-Three.

What's most perplexing is that, for all the elaborate and hyper-dramatic backstory here-- worlds destroyed, the Earth imperiled, potentially traitorous monster dogs-- most of the movie is concerned with the trivial drama of John's fake life in a high school, which is so idyllic and stereotypical it looks like a Thomas Kinkade painting of Dawson's Creek. John crushes on Sarah (Dianna Agron), an artsy outcast who used to date the jealous former captain of the football team, Mark (Jake Abel), a stock upperclassman bully played like Biff Tannen if he joined the Cobra Kai and then tried to beat John Cusack in a skiing contest.

Though the film's non-science-fiction elements seem culled directly from eighties teen flicks, you won't be allowed to forget the movie is set in the present day for very long thanks to at least a dozen product shots of John's iPhone, which is more his constant sidekick than the conspiracy-minded science nerd (Callan McAuliffe) he befriends. The iPhone ringtone should get billed as part of the movie's soundtrack; they just as easily could have called it I Am Number G4.

The film is based on the young adult novel of the same name, which was cowritten, under the odd pseudonym Pittacus Lore, by none other than Oprah-reprimanded author and noted liar James Frey. This project too seems as coldly calculated and market-driven as his bogus memoir, A Million Little Pieces, which was also engineered to capitalize on a lucrative trend. Oprah should have Frey back on the show to yell at him for this clunker of a story.