There’s no envy for director DJ Caruso over here. In I Am Number Four he takes on an adaptation that is daunting in a number of ways. The young adult sci-fi novel, by James Frey and Jobie Hughes, is packed with information, laying out an all-new universe that is meant to unfold over six books. What’s more, the book wasn’t even released until the late stages of production, meaning Caruso worked in a virtual vacuum. With no fan community to base decisions on, he and his production team simply had to wing it in terms of which elements to carry over from the source. Then, looming over everything were producers Stephen Spielberg and Michael Bay. It’s a fantastic thing to have such massive talents backing you up, of course, but imagine the pressure!
The result is a commendable effort at packing a dense story into a two-hour running that falls just too far short of its intended mark. There’s a fascinating universe here and some big ideas being laid out, but I Am Number Four buckles beneath the weight of its source text. Simply put, there’s too much information to impart and not enough time to get it all out in.
The story follows a pair of human-looking aliens, John (Alex Pettyfer) and Henri (Timothy Olyphant), who are in hiding on Earth following the destruction of their home planet Lorien at the hands of the invading Mogadorians. John is one of nine Lorien children who survived, each gifted with special (read: superhuman) powers that they grow into with age. Each child is also tagged with a number; if the Mogadorians want to kill off the final survivors — and they do, which brings them to Earth — they have to do it in order, one through nine. The story opens with the death of Number Three and young John, Number Four, is next.
The experience of going into this movie cold without ever having read the book must be similar to seeing the first Harry Potter movie with no knowledge of the source. You know there’s a whole lot more going on beneath the surface, but you don’t have enough information to figure out what. Such is the problem here as well. Fans of the book will be reasonably well-served, but even they will point to chunks of the movie that could have been put to better use in telling the story.
The actors do their best, particularly newcomer Pettyfer, who was supposed to have made his debut last summer in Beastly before it was pushed back past the Number Four release date. As Caruso himself has said in interviews, the kid has just the right mix of charisma and insecure vulnerability to make John Smith’s superhuman alien in hiding work. Also solid is Glee star Dianna Agron, who plays John Smith’s high school sweetheart, and Teresa Palmer, as fellow Lorien survivor Number Six.
There are easy Twilight comparisons to make with the “otherworldly boy falls in love with normal high school outcast girl” — although it is admittedly tough to buy the lovely Agron as anyone’s outcast — and the super-hip indie soundtrack, but where the vampire story spends much of its time in dark, morose places this one has a much lighter feel to it. There are also some solid action moments and more than one genuinely creepy run-in with the Mogadorians. It feels like a movie that is divided against itself, with all of this great stuff to throw your way and no eloquent way to make it all work.
If you want to blame anything, blame the book. There’s just too much to cover for the movie to bear. I Am Number Four would probably work better on TV, where it could really have the time to unfurl itself and develop the universe. Instead, mere minutes after meeting John Smith, we are subjected to an expository internal monologue and expected to pick things up from there. It’s awkward, sure, but how else do you get it out there without eating up too much screen time? Fans of the book — and there are a lot of us, as 10 weeks and counting at the top of The New York Times’ Children’s Best Seller List confirms — should definitely check it out, if only to ensure that DreamWorks let Caruso and company take another shot, perhaps even re-strategize and move to a television format. As I said at the start, there’s a great story here. There’s just not enough time to tell it in.
I Am Number Four opens today nationwide.