(by Dustin Putman
"I Am Number Four" stinks of a product-by-committee mentality, rushed into production prior to the official August 2010 release of its source material—a novel by Pittacus Lore, the pen name of authors James Frey and Jobie Hughes—and seemingly slapped together from the spare parts and overused clichés of countless other fantasy and action pictures. With maybe, just maybe, the exception of a scene set at an outdoor haunted hayride attraction, there isn't an original idea to be found in the finished product, which is deadly serious in tone yet so amateurish on every level that it frequently aspires bad laughs. Had passersby been listening through the theater door at the advance screening I attended, they might very well have assumed the audience was watching a comedy rather than the trite, overwrought drama it actually tries to be. Alas, the unintentional humor does not save the film from also being an outright chore to sit through. Article continues below
An extended aerial shot, dimly lit but still kind of neat, gets things off to an okay start, but it's immediately downhill from there. Following a prologue of undefined cinematography, barely cohesive editing, and dopey direct-to-video-level CGI effects involving a bat-like creature and a shot of a person turning to ash that wouldn't have passed muster on a 1997 season one episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," the story proper gets underway. This not only means the introduction of the uncharismatic 15-year-old hero of the piece, who goes by the moniker John Smith (Alex Pettyfer), but also a blatant spelling-out of the plot and backstory via one of the most clunky examples of expository narration in recent memory. Listening to it—and most of the dialogue that follows—is enough to make the viewer cringe; the fact that these words from screenwriters Alfred Gough & Miles Millar (2008's "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor") and Marti Noxon have seen the light of day without some major rewrites is all the proof one needs that no one involved behind the camera had their heart in the project. They are there for the bottom line: to keep their mouths shut and appease Dreamworks Pictures' derivative, half-assed attempt at appealing to the "Twilight" demographic while earning a hefty paycheck in the process.
Pretty, muscular and vacant, John Smith looks like he just pranced off the Paris catwalk, but is actually an alien, the fourth in a line-up of the last nine gifted children from planet Lorien. Spread out across the Earth, they are systematically hunted down and killed by the evil, bald-headed Mogadorians. When a third circular scar appears on John's leg, he senses that he is next on the Mogadorians' hit list. With warrior protector and makeshift father Henri (Timothy Olyphant) by his side, they once again change their names and relocate, moving from the Florida coast to the Midwest town of Paradise, Ohio. It is at John's new high school that he meets and falls for classmate Sarah (Dianna Agron), an aspiring photographer, while knocking horns with a group of hotheaded jocks whose sole goal is to make life hell for the bullied Sam (Callan McAuliffe). John longs to just be normal, but as the bad guys close in and the leather-sporting Number Six (Teresa Palmer) sets out to help him in the impending battle, his special powers make it increasingly difficult to shield his true identity.
Directed with nondescript flavorlessness by D.J. Caruso (2007's "Disturbia"), "I Am Number Four" features a dumb plot made all the dopier by the sheer inelegance of its telling. The aforementioned first-act voiceover is lame, to be sure, but things scarcely get better as ridiculous stereotypes and moldy tropes pave the way for the ninety more minutes to come. John tells Henri not to worry about him attending high school because he plans to blend in, then proceeds to moodily wears his hood up over his head and carry himself like an Abercrombie & Fitch model. Love interest Sarah is arty, so of course she has to wear a knitted cap and a paint-splashed T-shirt. Upon making his way to his locker for the first time, John is promptly approached by bully Mark (Jake Abel) and his ragtag cronies as if they've got a mark to hit, a script to follow, and not a thought in their sharp-cheekboned little heads. Not to be outdone, though, there also is a slow-motion shot of Six walking coolly toward the camera as a building explodes behind her, a sincere discussion about how John sees in Sarah something special ("She's not a regular girl," he says with hearts in his eyes), and a first kiss preceded by the worst come-on line of the twenty-first century: "Your hands are really warm." If that doesn't set 13-year-old girls into a fiery tizzy, what possibly could?
Solid performances can sometimes transcend muck, and then there are times when the acting wouldn't even be fit for a community theater company. Alex Pettyfer is being positioned as the next "It" heartthrob, but if he doesn't improve really quickly, the only movies he'll be getting soon will be of the XXX-rated variety. Just as he displayed in 2006's "Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker," Pettyfer brings a life to his character of John Smith that approximately resembles that of a sawed-off tree stump. There is no charisma, no vulnerability, and no detectable emotional connection to anything he does. Watching him is like keeping a close eye on the air. As Sarah, Dianna Agron (2010's "Burlesque") looks visibly rattled at the prospect of a lead role in a major motion picture, her fine work on TV's "Glee" not extending to the big screen. Unlike Pettyfer, Agron does appear to be sincerely trying, but her reading of the character is too meek, mild and hesitant to make any kind of positive impression. Lending no support, Teresa Palmer (2010's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice") is done in by murky motivations and bare development, asked to do little more than a series of poses. Finally, Timothy Olyphant (2010's "The Crazies") is squandered as Henri, and the one thing no movie should do is waste the intensity that Olyphant is so capable of bringing to his parts.
With innovation limited, "I Am Number Four" doesn't work as sci-fi or fantasy. With a romance involving two figures who are neither ingratiating nor particularly awake, the arbitrary love story flounders. A big creature-filled, school-set climactic showdown comes into play, but this bid for action is negligible and too late in the game to do much good. With off-putting, substandard computer effects enough to make a person long for the technical artistry and photorealism of the 18-year-old "Jurassic Park," there is also nothing to be dazzled by. It all boils down to a conclusion that sets up a sequel—a horrific thought seeing as how, by the end, most viewers won't be able to care less about what they've just seen and what is intended to follow. As a book, "I Am Number Four" is the beginning of a proposed six-part series. As a film, the idea of five more of these is about a half-dozen too many.