“This is the part I hate the most, the running,” says John Smith (Alex Pettyfer), as he climbs once more into a pickup truck and heads off to yet another small town. “But it’s the only part that’s real.” It’s real because when he’s not running, with his protector Henri (Timothy Olyphant), he’s pretending to be a regular high school student. Or at least, the sort of high school student who’s regular in the movies—tall, athletic (surfer, footballer), and tanned.
This familiar appearance helps John to keep secret his identity: he and Henri are both aliens from another planet, Lorien, and they’re hunted by another set of aliens, the Mogadorians. You know these hunters are bad, because they wear tribal-looking tattoos on their bald heads, along with black leather coats and perpetual grimaces. As the title of I Am Number Four indicates, John is a fourth target, and as the film begins, Number Three suffers a dreadful death. Because the Mogadorians are wed to their sequence, John is the next one they pursue. Hence, the running.
When John arrives at his new high school in Paradise, Ohio, he once again tries to keep a low profile, at Henri’s urging. (The full extent of the Mogadorians’ tracking technologies is unclear, but apparently, they use the internet.) As you anticipate, he does not keep his low profile, for as he is growing up, and into his powers, John is beset with hormone-ish body changes: his palms light up, he has spurts of great strength and agility, and he surprises himself when moments of upset or rage unleash these powers. As he learns to use them, leaping from cliffs and suburban-looking rooftops, he’s a little like Spider Man, as well as any other kid realizing what it means to grow faster and stronger than he used to be. That said, he’s one of those reluctant heroes, slow to embrace his gifts and even less eager to serve as savior for his race.
In lieu of the low profile, John finds trouble and some notoriety, courtesy of a beautiful classmate, Sarah (Dianna Agron), who likes to take and post photos of students and teachers on her webpage, “Strangers in Paradise.” Little does she know how strange her new acquaintance will be. Like Edward Cullen, John is a mix of mystery and melancholy, strength and vulnerability. Unlike Bella, Sarah is self-confident and un-desperate. She doesn’t need John; she likes him.
Still, the romance fast turns tedious, in particular because it seems so plainly borrowed from the Twilights. Based on a young adult science fiction novel written under the pen name Pittacus Lore by James Frey and Jobie Hughes (yes, that James Frey, the one who lied to Oprah and got caught and disciplined in public), the film is immediately seeking franchise status. (There are nine huntees, all told.)
And so, the high school angle is perforated with clichés. Sarah has an ex named Mark (Jake Abel), who’s also a football player and a bully, of course. He harasses John, and John’s new sidekick, a science nerd named Sam (Callan McAuliffe), of course. Mark backs off when the Mogadorians show up and reveal just how trivial such high school rivalries can be, but by then the movie has spent too much time in institutional hallways by the lockers, or at the annual fair, where John and Sarah take time out for the “Haunted Hayride,” so they can wonder whether the masked figures who jump out at them are mannequins on ropes or Mark and his hooligans buddies. You and John get to wonder an extra step, whether the Mogadorians have showed up.
Though Sarah is game and Sam has his own reason to throw in with the good aliens (his father, he believes, was kidnapped by bad aliens), the film lags when Henri isn’t on screen, which is too often (Olyphant’s perpetual look of disbelief and lanky gait are captivating, even when he’s playing an alien Mr. Miayagi). It’s a very good thing that Number Six (Teresa Palmer) shows up, ready to fight and quick-witted too. She’s got coiffed-to-look-wild blond hair and a sharp sense of humor as she metes out an especially stylized violence, leaping, contorting, wielding large blades. As the villains turn to dust when she kills them, Number Six might bring to mind Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Indeed. The film is peppered with confrontations en route to the final one, but its last one, with Number Six, occurs on a football field. Here you might imagine the high school setting has some other angle—is the film a critique à la Buffy? Rest assured, it is not.