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‘I Am Number Four’

“I Am Number Four”
Courtesy of DreamWorks

This alien-goes-to-high-school movie with young Alex Pettyfer tries for a “Twilight”-like mix of teen angst and otherworldly effects.

I Am Number Four follows the Twilight series’ playbook in casting a high school outsider as an otherworldly character. In this case, he’s an alien from outer space who changes schools the way normal kids change T-shirts because other aliens are out to destroy him. The movie is a mixed bag, with many of the elements fun and intriguing. But since this is also a Michael Bay-produced movie, CG monsters and cartoon bad guys gum up a third act that cries out for a more sophisticated climax rather than another tedious battle royal taking place almost entirely in the digital realm.

Young English actor Alex Pettyfer, the hunk of the moment for teen girls, stars as the misunderstood alien (chalk one up for savvy casting). Pettyfer has two more youth-targeted movies on tap this year, Beastly and Now, but in this performance he fails to justify the female shrieks he elicits. Yes, his body is well chiseled, but his acting — moodiness relieved only by flashes of anger — leaves a hole in the movie. The rest of the cast is more eye-catching in the drama department, especially Glee’s Dianna Agron as a teen absorbed in photography, Callan McAuliffe as a geeky guy into UFO lore, and fellow Australian Teresa Palmer, who adds plenty of sex appeal and athleticism to the role of another, much more self-confident alien.

A brief action sequence that opens the movie establishes the fact that a handful of good aliens from the doomed planet of Lorien are being hunted on Earth by villainous ones called Mogadorians. These baddies are eliminating nine good Loriens in numerical order; Number Three meets his fate in the opening, thus letting the target fall to Number Four (Pettyfer). The film gives no clue as to who or what established this pecking order.

Number Four and his protector (Timothy Olyphant), masquerading as his father, flee their identities in the Florida Keys for brand-new ones in the small town of Paradise, Ohio. (The movie was actually filmed in and around Pittsburgh.) As “John Smith,” Number Four enters a high school even one character is forced to admit consists of clichés run amok: A male clique surrounding the star quarterback (Jake Abel) bullies a geek; a beautiful cheerleader only wants to escape the gravitational pull of these thick-headed jocks.

Number Four is ordered by his protector to keep a low profile, which is hard to do when your hands glow like lightbulbs and you can toss around football players and police cars like matchsticks. So Number Four has a very hard time staying off YouTube, which is why the Mogadorians, led by a hammy Kevin Durand, are hot on his trail.

Number Four falls for Sarah (Agron), former girlfriend of the star quarterback, which creates all sorts of conflicts. He also befriends the geek (McAuliffe) with an interest in “ancient astronauts” and often comes between him and his bullies.

So the stage is well set in Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and Marti Noxon’s screenplay (based on the novel by Pittacus Lore) for a high school story with a twist. But Bay and his handpicked director, D.J. Caruso, fall back on their own geekdom by turning the movie over to CGI and VFX mavens rather than taking advantage of a considerable investment in character and story.

Shape-shifting, X-ray gun battles and telekinetic high jinks turn the school into rubble, which violates the spirit of this close encounter grounded in a kind of reality. The villains and their monster, kept in a trailer they lug around the country while feeding it frozen turkeys, are poorly designed, coming off as something out of the lame comic books the head villain has the temerity to mock.

Even the ending as it relates to the teenagers in love feels weird. Perhaps the filmmakers are setting up a sequel, but this film’s final note is most unsatisfying.

I Am Number Four is mostly a missed opportunity. The film plugs into some genuine teen angst and identity confusion that might have dovetailed nicely with its sci-fi elements. Instead, these two realities, a high school with its many melodramas and aliens chasing one another around the country, operate on parallel tracks. At times it feels like the reels from two very different movies got mixed up in the projection booth. The idea here is nifty, the execution mostly pedestrian.

Release date Feb. 18 (Disney)
Cast Alex Pettyfer, Timothy Olyphant, Teresa Palmer, Dianna Agron, Callan McAuliffe, Kevin Durand, Jake Abel
Director D.J. Caruso
Screenwriters Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, Marti Noxon
Based on the novel by Pittacus Lore
Producer Michael Bay
Executive producers David Valdes, Chris Bender, J.C. Spink
Director of photography Guillermo Navarro
Production designer Tom Southwell
Music Trevor Rabin
Rated PG-13, 110 minutes