“He’s some kind of freak,” cries a scantily clad teenage girl in an opening scene of I Am Number Four, a warning to her peers as she flees the beach where she had just been swimming in the dark with John (Alex Pettyfer), later known to the audience as Number Four, an alien hiding out on Earth after the invasion of his home planet. A strange light has begun emanating from John’s leg, heralding the death of another of his stranded alien brethren and leaving John next on a short list of remaining Lorien to be hunted down by the Mogadorian invaders. But the human teenagers John had been partying with see only a freak writhing on the sand whose alien attributes have now marked him as decidedly Not One Of Us. Apparently even tall, well-built charmers can be victimized by knee-jerk adolescent snap judgments.
The supposition that flying his freak flag high is what later gets John the girl—Sarah (Dianna Agron), a budding photographer who has been similarly ostracized from her peers because of her disinterest in being arm candy to the local muscle—is one of the film’s only grace notes. Even though John has spent his entire life trying to blend in, Sarah likes that he actually stands out, a platitude made literal in a scene in which Sarah caresses John’s hands as they glow like flashlight bulbs. The fact that John’s freak flag involves amazing feats of magic and strength, allowing him to fend off threatening football jocks and decimate his creepy alien enemies, is just icing on the cake.
Sam (Callan McAuliffe), a skinny kid who John defends from bullies and then takes on as a sidekick, observes of the corn-fed quarterback who seems to be the root of everyone’s problems that “he’s in the third year of the best four years of his life.” At its best, I Am Number Four is a promise that the freaks will outlast the popular kids and that the aliens among us, the people with all the problems, are the ones who will still be around for the sequel. And many of John’s problems are easily translated as our own: He wants to be a part of a family, and he wants someone to love. He wants to have grown up in a nice house on a nice street, and he wants to play sports. But his origin story—he is one of 10 Lorien children sent to Earth as refugees from the Mogadorian invasion, now the only remaining members of their species left to carry on the Lorien legacy—plagues him at every step.
Constantly on the move, John has no home and no purpose other than to keep running. (Following through on one of the film’s most glaring metaphors, John even befriends a stray dog.) But lo and behold—puberty!—he has begun to develop strange and exciting new powers, signaling his maturation into manhood and also his new promise as a valuable weapon for the Lorien cause. Henri (Timothy Olyphant), the Lorien warrior assigned as John’s protector, gives him a crash course on his new abilities before Henri too falls by the wayside (no superhero story is complete without the loss of a parental figure), leaving John to finally man up and recognize his true vocation of saving Earth from the Mogadorians.
John is supposed to be everything at once: outsider hero and sexy leading man, protector of his girl and protector of the world. His freak flag might be the answer to everyone’s problems, but it doesn’t mean he’s welcome on the streets of suburban Ohio. Thus we have a highly incongruous set of circumstances which only serves to distance us from each of the main through lines: the love story, John’s coming of age, the Mogadorian threat, and the nuisance of small-town pettiness. I guess it’s not surprising that the actors in I Am Number Four are extremely hot. Sex, after all, is a perennial distraction from the banality of our lives, and here it serves the same purpose. When John leans in to kiss Sarah for the first time, he says to her, “All I think about is you,” which is a great thing to hear, but seriously, if you’re the last of your species and you’re under siege on a foreign planet by an all-powerful race of alien thugs and all you can think about is this suburban girl whose secret diary you once briefly flipped through, your priorities are just begging to be reexamined.
The problem here, though, is that those priorities are shared by the movie itself. The kiss between John and Sarah is way more important to the storyline of I Am Number Four than any burgeoning sense of responsibility John is feeling for carrying on the legacy of his ancestors and avenging their demise. “She’s not just a girl,” John tries to explain to Henri when the older man doesn’t seem to understand the intensity of John’s obsession, and while this may be true (who knows?), the movie wants us to simply take John at his word (just like John expects Henri to) rather than show us anything more meaningful than a schoolyard romance writ large onto a potentially interplanetary backdrop. I Am Number Four is a franchise constructed almost scientifically from the ground up, a slick conglomeration of other popular successes which should totally work in theory (equal parts X-Men, Transformers, and Twilight), but just as Frankenstein discovered about his monster, the beast we’re left with after fusing these various ingredients together has inherited no soul at all.
After Sarah becomes aware that John might not be who she thinks he is, she poetically texts him on his iPhone: “Who are you?” And we could very well ask that question of the small army that no doubt contributed to the careful deployment of this unfortunate new franchise. Who are you? Because you look just like everybody else.