Extraordinary teen John Smith (Alex Pettyfer) has lived his whole life on the run, travelling from place to place with his guardian Henry (Timothy Olyphant), changing his name and all the while keeping his real identity a secret. For John is one of nine young alien beings endowed with special powers. Hidden on Earth by their murdered parents, these kids are hunted by bald bestial enemies called the Mogadorians and been methodically eliminated, one by one. And John is Number Four. Starting afresh in a small town, things soon get complicated when John falls for troubled high school girl Sarah (Dianna Agron) and befriends Sam (Callan McAuliffe), a lonely, bullied UFO obsessive whose scientist father was supposedly abducted by aliens. He also earns the enmity of town bully Mark (Jake Abel), whose father happens to be the local sheriff and is soon suspicious. Meanwhile, the evil Mogadorians are hot on John’s trail.
Produced by Michael Bay (but don’t hold that against it) for the DreamWorks studio, I Am Number Four was intended as kind of Twilight for boys, mixing teen romance with sci-fi action and trading morose, pretty-boy vampires for a sporty, fun-loving hero adolescent guys can relate to. While successful at the box-office, it remains uncertain whether the film has inspired the sort of passionate fan-following likely to spawn a series. In this instance one remains hopeful, given this is an energetic, involving and quite creative teen sci-fi thriller that compels right from the exciting intro with a terror-stricken acrobatic alien lad fleeing a ravenous Mogadorian monster.
Adapted from the bestseller by Pittacus Lore (the pseudonym used by writers Jobie Hughes and James Frey), the screenplay was penned by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, writer-producers of Smallville, together with Marti Noxon, one of the writer-producers on the landmark Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series. These three obviously have a solid grasp of the high school superhero sub-genre and cleverly fashion the comic book narrative into an extended allegory for a teenage state of mind. Confusion, uncertainty, searching for a sense of purpose are all familiar emotions writ large in John Smith/Number Four’s sad life on the run, bereft of friends and love while yearning for stability. Equally, the film fits in with director D.J. Caruso’s other paranoid teen thrillers: Disturbia (2007) and Eagle Eye (2008), drawing cleverly parallels between the hero’s edgy fugitive existence and the paranoia engendered simply being in high school, surrounded by gossip, bullies and peer pressure.
Though the storytelling is unecessarily fragmented and should have used something more cinematic than narration to convey important plot points, its romantic and comedic elements consistently engage while Caruso stages exhilarating action scenes and monster chases. It has a quietly charismatic lead in young British star Alex Pettyfer, while achingly lovely Glee actress Dianna Agron essays an interestingly offbeat love interest. Her self-loathing shutterbug proves as much on the run from her own past as John is from the Mogadorians. The alien bad guys themselves are rather goofy bunch, who read Silver Surfer comics, enjoy scaring small children and harbour a comical resentment of young, privileged earthlings. Far scarier and impressive are the enormous CGI monsters unleashed during the lively climax, including an amusing twist involving a hitherto innocent-looking family pet.
Stealing the show is Australian actress Teresa Palmer who makes a vivid impression as Number Six, a kick-ass alien action babe first glimpsed striding coolly away from an exploding cabin to the strains of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” Sick of hiding, Palmer’s sassy heroine takes the fight right to the Mogadorians in grand style and should arguably have been introduced a little earlier in the game.