I Am Number Four

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So much of the potential in “I Am Number Four” goes untapped that I hope the sequel that’s shamelessly set up at the end of it actually happens. There’s good material for an exciting franchise here, if only someone could figure out how to guide it in the right direction.

Based on a young-adult novel by Jobie Hughes and James Frey — which they published under the hilarious pseudonym “Pittacus Lore” — this is the story of John (Alex Pettyfer), a seemingly ordinary teenage boy who is, in fact, an alien. He’s one of nine who have been hiding here on Earth, the last of their kind, and the last line of defense between mankind and a race of malevolent aliens called Mogadorians who want to wipe us out and take over the planet (as is most malevolent aliens’ wont).

John lives with a guardian, Henri (Timothy Olyphant), who is of his species and is assigned to protect him. If they catch wind of the Mogadorians tracking them, or if their “we’re totally not aliens, we swear” cover is blown, Henri and John move to another town and come up with new identities. “This is the part I hate the most,” John says in voice-over. “The running. But it’s the only thing in my life that’s real.”

Does that sound brooding and angst-ridden? Buddy, you have no idea. John is so tired of running, so tired of having Henri as the only constant in his life, so eager to make an emotional connection with someone. They wind up in Paradise, Ohio, a quaint town where John strikes up a romance with Sarah (Dianna Agron), the beautiful, wholesome girl with the jerky football-player ex-boyfriend. The ex, Mark (Jake Abel), bullies smaller kids, doesn’t like the look of the new guy, et cetera, et cetera. Meanwhile, John starts to notice that he is developing certain superpowers, likely because he is a Chosen One, et cetera, et cetera.

At first glance, the whole affair appears to have been inspired by “Twilight.” It appears this way after several more glances, too: the mysterious loner with supernatural characteristics, the forbidden romance, the extra-powerful bonds of love that these mysterious creatures can form, the stylishly moody pop soundtrack, the way everyone stands around posing all the time like characters from some show on The CW — a lot of the film is glossy, dreamy wish-fulfillment, to be sure.

But “I Am Number Four” is better than you-know-what at avoiding the pitfalls of sap and melodrama, and much more adept at appealing to both genders. The film eventually becomes a fairly useful action flick, with chases and showdowns brawny enough to make young men stop feeling embarrassed for having accompanied their girlfriends to the theater. Sam (Callan McAuliffe), a twerpy science geek and UFO enthusiast from school who assists John, serves as a character that we can relate to better than the dauntingly pretty Dianna Agron and Alex Pettyfer. The Mogadorians (led by Kevin Durand), hideous in appearance, are fearsome as they relentlessly stalk their prey. An enigmatic hot chick played by Teresa Palmer does some butt-kicking as well. The director is D.J. Caruso, whose last two films, “Disturbia” and “Eagle Eye,” starred Shia LaBeouf; this feels like the kind of movie LaBeouf would be in, if he weren’t busy playing with Transformers.

There were times when the film reminded me of another youth-centric property with running themes of good-vs-evil and high-school-is-hell: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” No surprise, then, that one of the screenwriters is “Buffy” veteran Marti Noxon, and that the other two are “Smallville’s” Alfred Gough and Miles Millar.

Two things prevent “I Am Number Four” from being outstanding. One is its more than occasional use of rudimentary plot contrivances, coincidences, and other lamery. The other is its uncertainty over what it’s supposed to be. It’s unlikely that very many viewers will be fans of both the moony romance stuff AND the fights-and-explosions stuff, and there’s a lot of both. It has nothing to do with whether those things are done well — simply combining them is risky. Caruso and company almost pull it off. If there is a sequel, I bet it improves on the foundation laid here.

B- (1 hr., 50 min.; PG-13, for some profanity, moderate violence.)

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