'I Am Number Four' delivers sci-fi action thrills and a good story

Movie review

It would be natural for a teenager, especially one uprooted and moved to new schools 15 or 20 times, to feel like an alien. In the case of the boy known as John Smith (Alex Pettyfer), he really is one.

He is behind the declaration and movie title, "I Am Number Four," a sci-fi thriller filmed almost entirely in Western Pennsylvania in spring and summer 2010, with Franklin Regional High School playing a key role.

'I Am Number FourThe Crazies'

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained
  • Starring: Alex Pettyfer, Dianna Agron, Timothy Olyphant.
  • Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and for brief language.

Compared with "Abduction," it flew under the radar, but Mr. Pettyfer has all the makings of a teen heartthrob -- good looks, charisma, the requisite abs flashed during a recent appearance on "Ellen" and the bonus of being a promising talent.

In "I Am Number Four," John was one of nine gifted children who survived the destruction of their home planet of Lorien and escaped to Earth. He lives with a no-nonsense guardian, Henri (Timothy Olyphant), who masquerades as his single father.

The nine are being hunted, in numerical order, by the alien Mogadorian Army, seriously creepy dudes who stand 7 feet tall with shaved, tattooed heads, animal-like pointy teeth and other facial oddities.

When John goes for a nighttime swim in Florida, a circular scar begins to burn itself into his leg, a sign that Number Three has been killed and he is next on the hit list.

He and Henri leave paradise for Paradise, Ohio, a small town that appears to be anything but with its gray skies and high school stocked with bullies, the bullied and, in a pleasant surprise, pretty photographer Sarah (Dianna Agron from "Glee"), who takes a shine to John.

If John weren't busy enough trying to stay invisible in the Internet age and dodging Sarah's loutish former boyfriend, the alien teen's "legacies" or unique gifts begin to appear and his hands start to radiate cones of light.

The Mogs, as they're called for short, pick up his scent, and "I Am Number Four" builds to action-fueled fights that leave some people dead and some places in tatters.

"I Am Number Four" is based on a novel by James Frey and Jobie Hughes, writing under the joint pen name of Pittacus Lore, identified on the book jacket as "Lorien's ruling elder. He has been on Earth for the past 12 years, preparing for the war that will decide Earth's fate. His whereabouts are unknown."

Mr. Frey's checkered history as the author of "A Million Little Pieces" and the cutesy pseudonym aside, "I Am Number Four" is an engaging book aimed at young adults and adapted here in a way that retains its spirit and suspense.

Director D.J. Caruso, who made the Shia LaBeouf thrillers "Eagle Eye" and "Disturbia," doesn't let the movie get bogged down in sci-fi folderol.

He delivers the alien action goods but concentrates on John, Henri, Sarah, her ex-boyfriend Mark and one of the bully's frequent targets, Sam (Callan McAuliffe), a kid who takes the topic of outer space very seriously. Late in the game, another outsider played by Aussie Teresa Palmer appears, setting the stage for the next book in the series and possible movie.

Kevin Durand, by the way, is unrecognizable as the Mog commander who speaks a language invented for the movie and wears a western-inspired duster coat and boots that add seven inches to his 6-foot-4 height.

Mr. Pettyfer and Ms. Agron reportedly are a real-life couple, and their budding attraction rings true. Their contrasting families and views about escaping from home could be found in any coming-of-age picture, not just one featuring killer aliens on the loose.

Although set in a fictitious town in rural Ohio, the movie was filmed at Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville, Vandergrift, Port Vue, Deer Lakes Park and elsewhere in Western Pennsylvania, along with Florida, which cannot be faked here.

"I Am Number Four" is one of the better recent movies to be made here, but, even more important, it's a bright light in an otherwise dismal February.

Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her Mad About the Movies blog at post-gazette.com/movies. First Published February 18, 2011 5:00 AM


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