Guess what? No spoiler warning, and this is because whatever I write there’s no point in warning about spoilers – a five year old could have written this script in their sleep. It’s obvious and clichéd – a cynical mashing together of most emo/teen shows and movies, clearly configured to boost the still undeveloped film career of Alex Pettyfer. Don’t get me wrong – Pettyfer on screen is as breathtakingly beautiful as he is in his regular photoshoots by K Z Feng, but Pettyfer the actor retains the shortcomings he’s had since his teens. In short he’s not that bad at superheroics, underused on angsty emoting and just plain awful at dramatic acting – he should have been used as an ersatz RPatz but wasn’t, and this is the film’s chief failing.
Pettyfer plays John Smith or Number Four – one of nine alien children sent to earth to escape the genocide inflicted on their parents, alongside his guardian Timothy Olyphant. They must stay one step ahead of their grotesque enemies or face oblivion, all the while remaining off the radar. Naturally this is impossible for someone as beautiful as Pettyfer and the chase is on as he and his mentor settle in the town of Paradise, Ohio. The now chiseled, adult Pettyfer settles into the local high school, and for the first two thirds of the film we have to endure every cliché in the book – the obvious bully, his obvious bully father, the love interest (Dianna Agron – proving she has little more range than in ‘Glee’) and the geek (Callan McAuliffe, who cutely steals most of the show away from the overly promoted leads). Of course Number Four gets drawn into conflicts which reveal his presence in Paradise and which give away his nature to his peers. Of course his on-again-off-again romance with Agron goes somewhere, and anyone could easily chart the course of all his relationships in this film. And his relationships are baffling, because in addition to the script’s numerous failings (Alfred Gough & Miles Millar from ‘Smallville’ should be ashamed) Pettyfer walks around doing little other than looking moody, with an emotion-free stare, seemingly concentrating more on his American accent (which isn’t that bad) than actually acting.
If director DJ Caruso had just asked him to emote more (RPatz style) with his shirt off most of the time rather than just (an enjoyable) part of the time, it might have helped the film not feel so totally confused and unfocused. Pettyfer doesn’t look like a teen anymore, the nod to America’s terrorism meme is awkward and unbelievable, and the lead-ins to the inevitable confrontation with his enemies are tough to swallow. It’s unsurprising to see the hand of Michael Bay as producer, pushing style over substance (why is Pettyfer never asked to show any believable emotional response to anything, and how hamfisted is the introduction of Number Six (Teresa Palmer)?), even bringing the class geek’s (McAuliffe) penchant for the extraterrestrial very much in line with a certain Mr LaBeouf’s. Yet it’s actually his role as sidekick (he’s even named Sam), which saves ‘I Am Number Four’ from becoming straight-to-video schlock , adding a certain amount of charm, although the superheroic battles in the back end of the film are pretty good, and it’s clear that if the film had been better thought out (whoever thought Olyphant’s casting or role could be taken seriously?) it could have been both more consistent and more fun. It may not be worth your money at the cinema, but it’s also not as hideously bad as it starts out seeming.