Underneath its slick surface, I Am Number Four has everything: A promising teens-as-aliens, Roswell-esque storyline brought to life by producer Michael Bay, whose excesses are tempered by genre director par excellence D.J. Caruso. Number Four is also based on a recent Y.A. novel (all the rage, check) co-written by disgraced memoirist James Frey under the pseudonym (smart move) of Pittacus Lore, and adapted for the screen by Smallville creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar – which makes sense considering Number Four’s heavy borrowing from that show – and polished by Marti Noxon, a Buffy grad who went on to pen episodes of Mad Men.
Sounds great, right? Here’s the problem: That’s all underneath the surface. It’s the film’s candy-coated presentation that does it in, particularly the casting of the two leads. As “John Smith,” the teen alien constantly on the move from genocidal aliens hunting down his kind by number, in order, British newcomer Alex Pettyfer is so smolderingly attractive – literally, his looks attract the eyes, and not always in a good way – and so meticulously put together, from his expensive-looking, just-off-the-beach haircut to the tight V-neck designer shirt showing just a hint of tanned man-cleavage, that it’s impossible to believe he’s been trained to “blend in.” In fact, that’s one of the film’s unintentional laugh lines: His guardian, fellow alien Henri (Timothy Olyphant, who never does wrong), warns him that the baddies are getting close, and if he wants to attend high school, he’d better blend real good. John answers something to the effect of, “I’m good at that.” Cut to Pettyfer, in his Adonis glory, carefully lifting the hood of his sweatshirt over his head as if it tempers his Hollywood face in the least. (Though I suppose an argument could be made that the Zuckerberg hoodie masking a superheroic kid is the new Clark Kent glasses.)
Likewise, Glee’s Dianna Agron is just as wooden and passive here as John Smith’s once-in-a-lifetime love as she is on her hit show. She and Pettyfer, however, commit a cinematic sin that’s much more sinister than just being unconscionably attractive: They never buy into the sci-fi. Pettyfer never quite seems to believe the material, and spits dialogue regarding the planet Lorien and the Mogadorians with as much dismissiveness as Harrison Ford’s “You can type this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it,” declaration about the Star Wars script. Agron, on the other hand, never seems phased by the extraterrestrial revelations at hand, taking deadly laser battles and morphing dragon-dogs in as much stride as a challenging math quiz.
That’s not to say that Number Four isn’t highly enjoyable. Caruso continues to elevate any material he touches, and the writers know this material so well – they should, considering its heavy borrowing form their own prior work – that it’s a cakewalk for them to imbue the film with humor, exciting set pieces and winking high school metaphors.
If only the talent behind the camera could have convinced the ones in front that it’s a story worth suspending their disbelief. That is their job, is it not?
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