Sort of like an overlong but very expensive episode of almost any CW science fiction show, “I Am Number Four” isn’t actually bad, but there is a sense of over-familiarity with not only the plot but the straight-from-central casting characters. Young English actor Alex Pettyfer plays “John,” who’s almost too good-looking to be human, so it’s a good thing he’s not playing one. John is actually one of a small number of survivors from another world (Lorien, not Krypton), who’s being hunted by alien baddies called Mogadorians.
For reasons that are never completely clear, the Mogadorian bad guys are hunting the nine survivors of Lorien in numerical order. You’d think they’d make their lives easier by killing their targets out of order and being a little less predictable, but that’s not the way these guys roll. We also aren’t quite sure how their numerical rankings were arrived at, but John, needless to say, is number four. Number three is killed at the beginning of the movie, which John becomes aware of psychically in a beach scene that intentionally or not is pretty much a sharkless redo of the opening of “Jaws.” Aware that John’s number is quite literally up, he and Henri leave their beach shack in Florida for a town called “Paradise” (really?) in Ohio.
The movie takes a while to get rolling, but it does have a rollicking third act. Like the Mogadorian assassins who can’t seem to go out of order, screenwriters Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and Marti Noxon, all of whom come out of TV (Gough and Millar have written extensively for the CW’s “Smallville”) ploddingly paint by number. John tries to keep a low profile (meaning he puts up the hood on his hoodie), but runs afoul of the school’s central casting bullies, partly because he’s attracted to the wrong girl (Sarah, played by “Glee’s” Dianna Agron). That conflict comes to a head pretty much at the same time that the Mogadorian thugs get to town. The climactic showdown provides bigger-ticket property damage than most TV shows of this type.
Like most of the CW’s teen-oriented shows, the high school in this movie appears to be populated with 30-year old seniors, all of whom are preternaturally good-looking. The convention of an outsider in a modern American high school who turns out to be literally otherwordly has become an almost cliched metaphor for adolescent alienation, from Clark Kent from “Smallville” or Stefan on “The Vampire Diaries” to Edward Cullen in the “Twilight” books and movies.
Pettyfer isn’t bad, but he doesn’t display a ton of range, either. His relationship with his protector, Henri, played with daunting conviction by the excellent Timothy Olyphant, is largely comprised of CW banter, not always realistic, but entertaining. Olyphant’s been working a ton lately, both on TV (FX’s “Damages” and “Justified”) and in movies (“Live Free or Die Hard,” “High Life,” “The Crazies,”) because he’s good. Teresa Palmer, who was the damsel in distress in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” gets to use her own Australian accent in this movie, and finally gets to kick some butt. Callan McAuliffe and Jake Abel (“Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief”) provide solid supporting performances as recognizable high school stock characters. Kevin Durand (“Lost”) has a hoot in heavy makeup as the Mogadorian Commander.
Director D.J. Caruso (“Disturbia,” “Eagle Eye”) has done a competent if unimaginative job with the material. The tendency to use alternative rock songs as background music for quiet scenes is, I hesitate to say, a CW standby, now imitated by other network shows including “Grey’s Anatomy.” The film looks great though, thanks in part to gorgeous cinematography by Guillermo Navarro, director Guillermo del Toro’s go-to guy. (Navarro, currently shooting “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn,” will then be shooting del Toro’s “At the Mountains of Madness.”) The special effects, largely by Industrial Light and Magic, are pretty much industry par, no better, and some of the energy beam stuff actually looks a little retro.
The movie, which is based on the first installment of a proposed series of young adult novels, does set up for a sequel.
“I Am Number Four” is playing at Regal Cinemas across the Capital District, at the Madison Theatre in Albany and the Bow Tie in Schenectady.