High school outsiders have it rough enough already, feeling like aliens in the social universe around them. But for John Smith, the alias of the lead character in the new sci-fi thriller “I Am Number Four,” things are infinitely worse.
John’s the new kid in the Norman Rockwell-esque small town of Paradise, Ohio, having just moved there after fleeing his previous home near a California beach. In fact, John’s constantly running because in reality, he actually is an alien known as Number Four, who is one of only a few specially-gifted members of his species to survive a vicious attack on his home planet from an evil alien race known as the Mogs.
The Mogs have seized control of John’s home planet, and live in fear that the specially-gifted young aliens such as John may someday lead a rebellion to take back their planet. Therefore, vicious Mog killers are tracking the heroic young aliens down around Earth and killing them – with John’s number literally coming up next.
With only a fellow alien warrior named Henri (Timothy Olyphant) to protect him, John must keep his identity secret while blending into yet another small town high school. But things get extra-complicated this time because he falls in love with Sarah (Dianna Agron), a good-girl cheerleader whose ex-boyfriend is the school quarterback and lead bully and who wants to kept the two new lovebirds apart.
John teams with the school’s long-established nerd Sam (Callan McAuliffe), whose father mysteriously died while investigating alien and UFO appearances, to fight off the Mogs and save Paradise. But can they do it alone, or will the hot blond girl (Teresa Palmer) who keeps walking away from explosions have to help them?
Got all that? This is easily the longest explanation of a plot I’ve had to dish out in ages, and it truly offers just the setup for what’s to come rather than everything but the ending. This means that there’s an awful lot going on here, and while it’s often enjoyable, it ultimately feels like too much to digest – kind of like the giant turkey you regret having a fourth helping of at Thanksgiving.
Blending teenage identity issues, slam-bang action sequences, solid performances and a sweetly written romance with often-impressive special effects, the inventive “I Am Number Four” theoretically should prove to be both a blockbuster and a teen-movie classic. Yet in trying to juggle multiple genres into one slick show, writers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (TV’s “Smallville”) and Marti Noxon (a top writer from the late great series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) wind up dropping the ball at a few key points.
The main problem with “Number Four” is that the Mogs’ attacks and action scenes often seem like jarring afterthoughts rather than integrating fully into the story. The final battle scenes have so many sets of lasers zapping and objects getting destroyed, plus dozens of Mogs and their monster sidekicks seeming to come out of nowhere, that the film nearly goes off the rails. The appearance of a character who’s able to help save the day comes happens so randomly that it almost makes the film feel like it has a laughable deus ex machina ending.
“Almost” is the key word there, thankfully. The quality of the performances from all the young leads – particularly Alex Pettyfer as John/Number Four – is solid, and seems likely to portend big careers ahead. And the small-town aspects of the film are nicely rendered, with the central romance between John and Sarah a refreshing throwback to the positive teen relationships of John Hughes’ teen films in an age when MTV is trying to shove teens-in-heat garbage like “Skins” down our throats.
With most of the film’s other suspense and action scenes thrillingly directed by D.J. Caruso (“Disturbia,” “Eagle Eye”), “I Am Number Four” may not quite merit four stars. But thankfully, the many elements that work ensure that no one will consider it “number two” either.