The aliens have arrived among us and they have officially claimed our movie theaters . Leading the next wave of interstellar cinematic invasions is the wispy little teen thriller I Am Number Four. Based off a series of young adult novels, Four mixes jittery teen anxiety with superhero wish fulfillment, throwing in some gnarly weapons and grotesque beasties for good measure. The film plays less like an original story and more like a greatest hits version of sci-fi classics without the zesty bite of invention.
Brit Alex Pettyfer gives a likable if stiff performance as the alien teenager John, the fourth of nine cosmic children sent from the dying planet Lorien to Earth to hide from the Mogadorians. Bald-headed, razor-toothed monsters who decimate and stripmine the planets they visit, the Mogss are killing the nine in order. In the film’s rounsing intro in the jungles of Africa, they dispatch number 3 . Johnis hanging out on the beaches of California when he feels the death of third Lorian via a psychic connection, sending he and his guardian Henri (Timothy Olyphant) fleeing to Paradise, Ohio.
In Paradise, John begins honing his new-found ‘legacy’–the powers bequeathed him from his diminished homeworld– while Henri searches for a missing archeologist. Struggling through high school and coming to grips with his abilities as a ‘Lumen’ (shiny, glowy hands don’t ya know) John falls in love with blond and quirky Sarah, played by the radiant Dianne Argon (Glee) who makes Bella Swan look like limp goth bait. As the Mogadorians close in, John gains allies in the form of Sam Goode (Callan McAuliffe), a bullied student whose father is the missing scientist, and Number Six (Teresa Palmer), the bad-ass blonde Australian war-machine who’s taken the fight right to the alien menace.
The script by Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and Marti Noxon gives some nice texture to the world surrounding John and Sarah and some of the best sequences are also the most mundane; an off-the-cuff family dinner with Sarah’s family reveals the inner longings of alien Four’s heart while under-cover Mogdorians relieve a nearbhy supermarket off all their raw turkeys. Guillermo Navarro, lenser of Pan’s Labyrinth and the recent Sanctum, makes the pulpy imagery and silly special effects–like John’s glowing hands and the Mogs’ flying reptiles–resonate when Caruso’s pedestrian direction doesn’t.
The acting is serviceable but unremarkable across the board, with Cauliffe and Palmer shining as the secondary pair of heroes, Sam and Six. When Sarah and John prove too bland, this duo enliven the proceedings. Palmer trades up her faux yank accent for her native Aussie and steals the film in the explosive finale. Olyphant’s Henri doesn’t have much to do but the actor takes a throwaway part and builds underlying poignancy in the places where a more elaborate backstory should be. Kevin Durand is hidden behinds plenty of waxy makeup but he provides the Mogdorian leader with campy menace that works.
All of this would be more interesting with a more original story at the film’s center and with a more inventive director behind the camera. I’ve not read the source material but wikipedia confirms that the film has jettisoned most of the meaty backstory. In that version, a charm bestowed by the Lorians prevents the nine from being dispatched out of order. Onscreen, it’s never clear why the Mogs can’t just kill Six or the rest before capping four. Caruso keeps the early chapters steeped in the familiar grounds of coming-of-age teen drama but at best it’s like a Disney special on steroids.
And then, there’s the movie’s final third, which unleashes the building action elements in a sustained stream of action. John, Sarah, Sam and Six battle the Mogs at the local high school and Caruso comes alive as director for the first time. Lasers are fired, monsters are unleashed, heroes leap through the air like human torpedoes and Number Six evokes Buffy the Vampire Slayer in a scene wheres she reduces fanged creatures to ash in the shadowed halls of the school. When Four’s Chimera–his animal guardian in hiding–takes on the Mog’s winged hunters, the movie is channeling the spirt of Ray Harryhausen’s classic monster fights. It’s the only scene that has any juice at all.
In the end, I Am Number Four is a bit too routine, unsteady and generic to beguile the hardcore genre crowd, but it may play well for younger audiences who have yet to discover the fantasy/sci-fi section of their library. There’s something charming and goofy about its adherence to older tropes and it understands the comfort and draw of Campbellian archetypes. In a world where Twilight and Transformers rule the boxoffice, a lively, if unoriginal, spark like I am Number Four looks less shabby than it really is.