John (Alex Pettyfer) uses all his strength as he and Number Six (Teresa Palmer)… (DreamWorks, DreamWorks )
"I Am Number Four," the appealing new kid-on-the-teen-angst block, reverberates with much of the same dark combustible mix of action and romance that's been fueling the "Twilight" vampire mega-franchise for a while now. The issues of the heart have shifted from the undead to the otherworldly, and the battles have been amped up considerably, but its fate still rests on the basic boy-meets-girls story, which frankly could use a bit more bite.
Alex Pettyfer, another lean and comely Brit with moody charisma in the Robert Pattinson vein, and sugary soft Dianna Agron ("Glee's" head Cheerio) are our star-crossed high school sweethearts John and Sarah. She's grown up in the small town of Paradise, Ohio, and poses the film's burning question, "Who are you?" Well, my pretty, he's a stranger from another planet and already at the mercy of destiny, and when destiny is on your dance card, love doesn't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. For all the crazy anyone could ask for there are the deadly aliens of planet Mogadore.
Pettyfer's John and his guardian-warrior-pretend dad Henri (Timothy Olyphant) are refugees here. They and a handful of others are all that's left after the Mogadorians decimated planet Lorien, which is just like Earth except everyone looks hot. John's one of nine survivors all coming of age now, all with super powers surfacing, all with a protector like Henri, all being systematically picked off by those alien bad boys.
If that weren't trouble enough John has to contend with the local football bullies who have targeted him and another outsider and soon-to-be ally, Sam (Callan McAuliffe).
When the film opens, Number Three is in jeopardy somewhere in the tropics, which means John's number is up next. Henri hopes they can stay under the radar, John just wants to be high school normal. But if battle they must (and they must), help is at hand. In addition to John's smart new sidekick Sam, there's a mysterious stray mutt, a box from his dad that Henri won't let him open just yet and his first super power — hands that do this whole laser light thing, which through director of photography Guillermo Navarro's lens looks a whole lot cooler than it sounds.
Amid friction at home, problems at school, the budding romance with Sarah, the gathering Mogadorians and a whole lot more, the filmmakers keep a brisk pace that will almost make you miss the movie's soft spots. Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and Marti Noxon's smarter-than-average script doesn't veer much from its source, the young adult bestseller by Pittacus Lore, a nom de plume for Jobie Hughes and James Frey. (Frey, you may remember, got that public tongue lashing from Oprah Winfrey after his addiction autobiography, "A Million Little Pieces," which she had championed, turned out to be more fiction than fact.)
With Michael "Boom Boom" Bay producing, it's not surprising that "Number Four" comes fully loaded with some of the best action any high school kids have gotten since Shia LaBeouf in "Transformers." In "Disturbia" director D.J. Caruso's more emotionally sensitive hands, the relationships start to take shape in ways that would make a future life for "Number Four" actually appealing.
Meanwhile, Navarro, who brought such ethereal beauty to "Pan's Labyrinth" and such gritty action to "From Dusk to Dawn," uses both of those strengths in creating a richly textured world for John to try to save.
The filmmakers have a mixed bag in the ensemble surrounding Pettyfer, who is by far their strongest asset. McAuliffe, one of the best things to come out of the Rob Reiner flop "Flipped," has the looks and acting chops to suggest he might at some point become leading-man material. Olyphant is steady as Henri but feels like an untapped resource, the sexy-comic irony that's made his "Justified" marshal on FX so much fun to watch is completely dialed down.
Much of the canned heat of the repressed sexual sort so necessary to these films is provided by the leather-clad hottie Number Six, played with butt-kicking verve by Teresa Palmer. Which makes the John-and-Sarah crises only worse. It's not a matter of whether they'll fall in love — that gets dispensed with right away — but absolutely no sparks fly between them.
In fairness, the filmmakers haven't given Agron much to work with. No inner demons, no teenage doubts, no rebellious edge, she even gets along with her parents — the basic recipe for bland and boring.
That could have been the kiss of death for "Number Four" if not for the Mogadorians. Wearing old-style western dusters and slinging guns and monsters, they're led by the very villainous Kevin Durand, an action movie staple ("X-Men Origins: Wolverine," "Legion") finally in charge.
We don't really get much about their motivations for all the mayhem, though honestly the unsightly gills on either side of their noses would put anyone in a bad mood. Evil as they are, you're grateful when they show up because sparks don't just fly, they ignite an inferno. John wasn't the only one waiting for the good bad fun of that.