With Alex Pettyfer, Timothy Olyphant, Dianna Agron, Teresa Palmer, Callan McAuliffe. Directed by D. J. Caruso. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and for language. 110 minutes.
A look at the upcoming calendar suggests that 2011 could be a very good year for science fiction movies. It will be hard to judge until the films are released, but signs are good. From that perspective, I AM NUMBER FOUR is not the ideal start for the year’s genre offerings, but from the perspective of bringing YA (young adult) novels to the screen, it’s a decent offering.
That YA source novel (credited to the pen name Pittacus Lore), explains why this is a movie that will primarily be of interest to teens and not to older viewers. Prior to the start of the film, John’s (Alex Pettyfer) home planet has been wiped out by the marauding Mogadorians. Nine children with special powers were sent with guardians to Earth in hopes of surviving and, upon reaching maturity, fighting back. As the film begins the third of the nine kids, now teenagers, is killed by a Mogadorian team of assassins. John, also known as Number Four, knows he is next.
Taking the name of John Smith, Four and his protector Henri (Timothy Olyphant) moved to the ironically named Paradise, Ohio where Henri tells him he is to lay low. Instead, John insists on going to the local high school. There, in short order, he catches the attention of The Chief Bully (Jake Abel), The Bully’s Ex-Girlfriend (Dianna Agron), and The Kid Everyone Picks On (Callan McAuliffe) because he claims his father was kidnapped by aliens. As with the best science fiction, it’s really about our lives, and is there a teen who can’t relate to the situation John walks into?
John’s alien powers are also developing, a nice metaphor for the usual adolescent problems of Strange New Feelings one can’t completely control, and his actions soon make him anything but invisible. It’s only a matter of time before the Mogadorians show up for a special effects showdown on the high school grounds. No details here, but by film’s end Paradise is going to need to pass a bond issue or land some federal disaster relief to finance all the repairs to the school.
The book is part of a series, and clearly the filmmakers are hoping that success will strike the film version. We meet one other of the alien survivors (Teresa Palmer) late in the film, and there’s clearly much more of the story to tell. While John’s adventures in Paradise reach a satisfying conclusion, there are the other survivors to find as well as a final reckoning with the baddies.
Whether as straight-up science fiction thriller or an examination of teen angst in alien drag, “I Am Number Four” is likely to hit the sweet spot for its target audience, who will see overbearing adults or school bullying not as clichés but as the reality of their everyday lives. With the exception of Timothy Olyphant as John’s protector, the cast will likely be unknown to most viewers, though teens will be quick to notice Dianna Agron, who plays Quinn on “Glee.”
“I Am Number Four” is a solid science fiction offering for the middle school and high school crowd, and that’s no small achievement. Let’s hope there will also be something for the grown-ups sometime soon.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.