John Smith looks like any other fifteen year old boy, and has a lot of the same worries – girls, friends, avoiding confrontation with the school bully- but he’s no ordinary teenager. John Smith is actually an alien, one of nine children with special powers who, along with their guardians, escaped from their home planet Lorien during a devastating invasion. The invading aliens, the Mogadorians, are hunting down the survivors and killing them off in order. Numbers one through three are dead, and John is Number Four. He and his guardian Henri need to evade discovery while John develops his powers, and then, hopefully, they will unite with the rest of the Lorien survivors to defeat the Mogadorians.
I Am Number Four reads like the first draft of what could be a fun, fast-paced YA sci-fi novel. Unfortunately, the key to that sentence is â€œfirst draft.â€ John Smith narrates, and his voice is incredibly uneven – it’s hard to tell if he’s supposed to sound like a fifteen year old boy, or like a wise-beyond-his-years alien. The other characters are equally under-developed. I couldn’t get a handle on John’s relationship with Henri, his guardian and father-figure, and Sarah, his blonde and blue-eyed love interest, seems to be notable mostly for being pretty and taking pictures. Bernie Kosar, John’s rather mysterious dog, is the book’s most lovable character by far.
Because the characters are lackluster, it’s hard to get involved in the action, although some of the action sequences are pretty cool (and the high point of the movie – see below!). I did enjoy the sequences where John and Henri practice developing Henri’s powers, and it was fun to witness John’s friend Sam’s reaction to John’s growing abilities. Overall, however, the writing is rough. There’s much more â€œtellingâ€ than â€œshowing.â€ The plot is unnecessarily complex, and important details are glossed over in favor of unnecessary descriptions (do we really need to know, for example, the layout of Sarah’s house?) The novel could have easily been a hundred pages shorter, and might have been a fun read if it were.
As I alluded to above, I really struggled to finish this one, and I usually love sci-fi. It reads like the author tried to do everything – action, romance, aliens, friendship, family relationships, awesome pets – and in doing so, got overwhelmed. Try The Lightning Thief, Ender’s Game, or The White Mountains by John Christopher instead.
In I Am Number Four’s case, the movie is a significant improvement over the book, although it too suffers from underdeveloped characters and a haphazard script. It stars the omni-present Alex Pettyfer as John Smith, Timothy Olyphant as his guardian Henri, and Glee’s Dianna Agron as Sarah, the artsy love interest. Like the book, it feels like something cobbled together from elements of what producers think is trendy right now, rather than having interesting characters, meaningful relationships, or a coherent plot line. It benefits, however, from a couple of nice performances and some pretty great action sequences. In particular, Timothy Olyphant and Callan McAuliffe, who plays John’s alien-loving friend Sam, turn in nice performances that round out their characters significantly. The Mogadorians, with their sharpened teeth and creepy dark humor are suitably scary (there’s a particularly horrific little device they use on one of the lesser characters that had me squirming and covering my eyes). The action sequences are the movie’s high point. There are plenty of explosions, and the stunt work – especially as John develops his new powers and an unexpected ally shows up – is pretty impressive. Overall, not a bad choice for the discount theater or a snow day rental, but not something to bump to the top of your to-watch list.
Bonus! Other YA movie news:
See up there where I recommended Ender’s Game? MTV reported last week that a movie is finally in the works for this 1985 novel, which is on ALA’s â€œ100 Best Books for Teensâ€ list.
Also this week, Deadline reported that Hailee Steinfeld has been cast in Forgotten, an adaptation of a YA novel by Cat Patrick about a 16 year old girl who has her memory erased every day at 4:33am. Wonder if this means she’s out of the running for Katniss?
–Emily Calkins, currently reading The Necropolis by P.J. Hoover
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