Instead of vampires and wizards-in-training, director D.J. Caruso and mega-producer Michael Bay focus on teenage aliens and their assassin pursuants (clad in black trench coats no less) in the teen-friendly, sci-fi adventure I Am Number Four. The first DreamWorks Studios release since last summer's Dinner for Schmucks, I Am Number Four features British lead Alex Pettyfer as the titular hero answering to the alias John Smith. If battling an alien enemy isn't enough, Caruso also surrounds Pettyfer with every imaginable teenage drama. Smith is the new kid at a small-town school trying to fit in; he battles bullying jocks over his friendship with the quarterback's ex-girlfriend (Glee's Dianna Agron); and he's experiencing growth spurts that include glowing hands and levitation. On top of that, Smith has to fight to survive the alien villains sworn to kill him and his fellow extra-terrestrials, also hiding on Earth. Caruso also stuffs I Am Number Four with every possible teen desire: a cool Pop soundtrack, good-looking leads Pettyfer and Agron, a familiar high school setting, young romance and plenty of explosive action and monster effects at the film's climax. While Caruso will fail to win over adult reviewers, I Am Number Four will connect with teen moviegoers anxious for a new young adult fantasy fix to hold them until the next Twilight Saga hits in November. DreamWorks Studios' smart use of social media will help I Am Number Four be the President's Day Weekend earnings leader and continue to thrive as a solid, live-action success.
Number Four, or John Smith (Pettyfer) to his unsuspecting human friends, is one of the few remaining survivors from the planet Lorien, a group of nine teens steadily acquiring special powers that will help them survive on Earth. Their sworn enemy, the Mogadorian Commander (Kevin Durand), leads a team of assassins to hunt them down and prevent them from returning to their home planet. Number Four and his guardian Henri (Timothy Olyphant) hide out in the small town of Paradise, Ohio but it's not long before the Mogadorians catch up to them. Before an explosive confrontation at the town's high school, Number Four experiences all the joy and heartache of teenage life—human style.
Screenwriters Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and Marti Noxon adapt the novel by Pittacus Lore, the pseudonym for James Frey, best known as the author of the controversial memoir A Million Little Pieces. To their credit, all the subplots involving teenage love, school bullies and fitting in ring true. But I Am Number Four aims to be a sci-fi action movie first and a teen melodrama second and long before its action climax unfolds, one sits wondering if these veteran screenwriters and producers mixed up their priorities.
Pettyfer, star of the failed boy-spy franchise Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker and the upcoming Beastly, looks plenty handsome with his tousled, sandy blonde hair and chiseled cheekbones. He makes a believable American teen in his skinny jeans, hoodie and flat Midwest accent. His good looks aside Pettyfer broods too much throughout the film and makes Number Four the gloomiest teen hero imaginable. Understandably, he's one of the last survivors of his planet but would it be asking too much to laugh or tell a joke?
Dianna Agron of the hit TV musical Glee comes off better as Sarah, the pretty cheerleader-turned-photographer who dreams of leaving her small Ohio hometown. As the school nerd Sam, Callan McAuliffe stumbles through a clumsy subplot involving UFO fanatics and invasion conspiracies that drags down the storytelling. Timothy Olyphant (TV's Justified) brings a jolt of emotional substance to the film as Number Four's guardian and surrogate father. Kevin Durand makes good use of creepy make-up effects as Number Four's chief enemy.
The film's best moments belong to Teresa Palmer as unexpected backup to Number Four, who makes a fiery entrance every bit as dramatic as Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator. When I Am Number Four finally comes to life via explosive battles, it's the sassy Palmer, not Pettyfer, who really makes the film sizzle.
D.J. Caruso (Eage Eye, Disturbia), working with his longtime collaborator and production designer Tom Southwell, cameraman Guillermo Navarro and special effects coordinator Peter Chesney and visual effects supervisor Greg McMurray, shows a steady hand at fantasy razzle-dazzle especially in the film's all-out, climactic battle. Special kudos goes to Howard Berger at SPFX Makeup for the eerie head tattoos worn by the villainous Mogadorians.
By the film's conclusion, with Number Four and his new friends eagerly setting up a potential sequel, it's worth remembering that Bay bought I Am Number Four as an unpublished manuscript. It's impressive how sharp his instincts continue to be. The next installment of Frey's teen adventure series, The Power of Six, hits bookstores in August. As far as Number Four returning to the big screen, teen audiences will soon have their say.
Distributor: DreamWorks Pictures
Cast: Alex Pettyfer, Timothy Olyphant, Teresa Palmer, Dianna Agron, Callan McAuliffe and Kevin Durand
Director: D.J. Caruso
Screenwriters: Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and Marti Noxon
Producer: Michael Bay
Running time: 110 min
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and for language.
Release date: February 18, 2011