It could be argued that everyone feels alien in high school. But none more so than John Smith, the protagonist of I Am Number Four, a slight but surprisingly entertaining movie based on the young adult novel of the same name by Jobie Hughes and James Frey, Oprah’s favorite memoir-exaggerating whipping boy. See, John actually is an alien (albeit one who could double for a California surfer boy) who hails from the fictional planet Lorien. Not only that, but he and the few remaining Loriens who’ve sought refuge on Earth are being hunted down and killed by a fearsome tribe of tall, tattooed predators, the Mogadorians, who invaded Lorien and extinguished its populace some years before. John is one of nine teens who were saved in order to protect their special powers, but as it turns out, Earth maybe isn’t the best hiding place. The Mogadorians have already killed off the first three. And John, well … you know the title.
When I Am Number Four begins, John (Alex Pettyfer), who at this point is called Daniel (it’ll make sense soon) is living in Florida with his guardian, Henri (Timothy Olyphant), who poses as his father despite really being a Lorien warrior who carries an ornate machete on his person at all times. John/Daniel seems like a regular teenager, doing flips on a Jet Ski, drinking beer and ogling pretty girls. But while enjoying a late-night swim with a potential hook-up, his leg lights up and a scar appears on his calf alongside two other identical marks, signaling the death of Number Three (not to mention totally killing the mood). Knowing that their cover has been blown and that the Mogadorians are on their trail, John/Daniel and Henri leave Florida the next morning, burning most of their possessions.
They settle in the ironically named town of Paradise, Ohio, where Henri christens Daniel “John Smith” for purposes of anonymity. But John, who looks like Michelangelo’s David even in a hoodie and cargo pants, quickly attracts the attention of his new school’s most eligible bachelorette, a cheerleader-turned-photo blogger named Sarah (Glee’s Dianna Agron, batting her Bambi eyes to full effect). This gets him in trouble with the football team, but not to worry—John soon learns that his extraterrestrial gifts include the ability to shoot light from his hands, use superhuman force and leap great distances, all of which prove excellent tools for handing the local riff-raff an epic ass-whooping.
I Am Number Four hits every teen movie cliché (the bullying jocks, the X-Files-loving science geek who gets pushed into lockers), and its core is really nothing more than an uninspired Superman story with a limp love interest, but the dreamy, understated Pettyfer is easy to root for. His skin may not sparkle in the sunlight, but he has flashlights for hands, which is almost the same thing. And even when plot points are dumb (conveniently, in addition to their superior machete skills, Loriens only fall in love once), the film moves quickly enough for you to forgive most of them.
Take the Mogadorians, for instance, who seem to have been constructed from spare villain parts lying around the lots of various Hollywood studios. They have the height and platform boots of Frankenstein, the bald heads and vaguely reptilian features of Voldemort, and the facial tattoos of Darth Maul from The Phantom Menace. They also speak in a foreign dialect that sounds like a European version of Na’vi, and breathe through gills. But even if the bad guys aren’t truly terrifying (comically, they are forced to transport their fearsome, velociraptor-esque beast pets in the back of a semi truck), at least they’re committed.
The movie’s climax, which all but decimates the high school, introduces a new character, known only as Number Six, another Lorien survivor. As John rides off into what surely will be a sequel, you’re acutely aware that you’re watching a factory-produced wannabe blockbuster that was conceived with the sole purpose of making money. Oh, well. At least it was sort of fun to watch.
I Am Number Four (R) ★★★☆☆