The story behind I Am Number Four is far more interesting than its actual storyline. It was the first property sold by Full Fathom Five, the “fiction factory” of disgraced A Million Little Pieces author James Frey; as chronicled in a scathing New York article, Frey offers young writers a few hundred dollars plus a profit share to ghost-write market-minded books he can shop around as multimedia properties. The film rights to I Am Number Four sold before the book did, and Frey has used that success to entice dozens more writers into his sweatshop.
In interviews, Frey has openly admitted his desire to create the next Harry Potter series by monkeying slightly with proven formulas; he also acknowledges adding distinctive weapons and jewelry into I Am Number Four entirely to produce marketable spin-off items. The film’s plot feels just as nakedly calculated for profit: It concerns an alien teenager (Alex Pettyfer) with developing superpowers, running from a race of alien warriors who want him dead for some cursorily explained he’s-a-Chosen-One reason. The important part is that he’s hunted, which gives him plenty of chances for flashy special-effects combat, teen angst over his life on the run, and pathos when he falls for an appropriately soulful Earth girl.
There are no vampires in I Am Number Four, but the emotional palette is ripped from Twilight (mope, yearn, glower), and the character dynamics from The Lost Boys: As the new kid in town, Pettyfer falls for Glee’s Dianna Agron; deals with her alpha-male ex and his coterie, who either want to embrace Pettyfer or beat him down; and gets some help from a cringing-but-knowledgeable little-brother figure. D.J. Caruso (Disturbia, Eagle Eye) directs all this with a solid eye for thrilling battle scenes, but with little interest in escaping the cheesy overemotiveness of the script, written by Smallville co-creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, and frequent Joss Whedon collaborator Marti Noxon. If anything, Caruso embraces the eye-rolling excess, with characters walking away from explosions in slo-mo, and a pack of hissing, grinning baddies who seem to be channeling the Kurgan from Highlander. Really, everything in I Am Number Four is recognizable from many past films. Frey didn’t really need a ghostwriter for this story, he just needed an archivist with a Xerox machine and a mercenary streak.