I Am Number Four: Would you like a side of ass-kicking with your cotton candy?
This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.
Update, 9/19/12: Okay, so I can finally admit it was a bad movie, far worse than I admitted when I published this. I'm sorry.
In films full of teenagers, you almost have to assume that the leading couple will be very pretty and also fairly bland. A lot of the characters will do the rebellious, dramatic, and often shortsighted things that many teenagers do. But if you're lucky, you'll get the cinematic equivalent of fluffy cotton candy and you will be distracted from the humdrum details of your daily existence for about two hours.
Perhaps it was the power of my low expectations, since I had heard I Am Number Four described as "Twilight, but with aliens," but I felt like it was excellent cotton candy. Not Twilight. More like Step Up 2: The Streets. But with aliens, and less dancing, and more stuff blowing up.
AND A TOTALLY KICK ASS ACTION HEROINE!
I Am Number Four is the story of alien orphan "John" (Alex Pettyfer) a.k.a. Number Four, a.k.a whatever his fake identity is today while he lives in hiding from the Mogadorian hordes who sacked his planet and killed everyone but nine of the special-est children and their bodyguards. Three of those surviving kids are now dead, and John is next on the list if he can't keep his head down... which he can't, since he's in desperate need of contact with anyone other than his bodyguard. Being a teenager, he is prone to do foolish things while pursuing this goal, like insist on attending school. That never turns out well.
You have to wait a long time for Number Six (Teresa Palmer) to show up in John's story. You see a few glimpses of her early on, like when she blows up a house. I actually wondered if we might run out of film before she had any action scenes. Oh happy day, no! Six is better trained than Four, has big guns, and seems a lot more interested in kicking alien oppressor backside than lurking around small towns being unhappy with not having a life because she's being hunted by the genocidal invaders who destroyed her home planet. She may be all the movie cliches of action girl in terms of her appearance, but I loved Six, and the movie definitely left me wanting to see more of both the character and of Palmer's other action work if she does any. The combination of her power set and John's in the final confrontation made for lovely action scenes, and aside from one sexist joke from her, I was impressed by the equal footing and respect the filmmakers gave both characters.
The casting diversity is a complete fail, depressingly. This is actually a film where I could be okay with a mostly or all-white cast if it didn't reinforce the overwhelming whiteness of almost all movie casting. There are some film settings that are always made of fail if they're cast as all white, like, oh, anything happening in a large urban area (*cough* Batman Returns *cough*.) But I could forgive a small town in Ohio setting for being a little on the pale side in a world where films as a whole were incredibly raciually diverse. What I also didn't see, though, was anyone with a disability, any identified GLBT characters, or any women larger than a size 6. I'm prett sure everyone in Paradise, Ohio is middle class, too, and all the children are above average. There has to be a way to portray a small town in the Midwest without lapsing into these stereotypes of places, that in turn limit the diversity of what we see on the screen. Even if you need to give your teenagers something to rebel against.
I will warn you, there is a very long (very very long) spell in the middle of this movie when it's just Number Four a.k.a. John falling in love with a girl who is not very interesting. That got a bit old, and it was a relief when the action started to pick up again. But I am willing to forgive this in exchange for all the small moments throughout the film that were so well done. If you see it, keep an eye out for these two: the girlfriend's father rebuking her mother with a look for her too pointed questions of John at the dinner table, and then the camera comparison between dynamic Number Six and suddenly pale by comparison love interest Sarah (Diana Agron) - and Sarah's priceless reaction take a beat later.
We have covered so many films at Heroine Content whose crimes against diversity are far worse than erasure, but I'm still not willing to give a film four stars anymore unless it positively contributes to fixing the white-and-other-washing of film in general. Having a conventionally skinny white chick kick ass just doesn't cut it for me anymore. So I Am Number Four gets three stars as a strong contender. See it!