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Movie Review

I Am Number Four

‘Number Four’ is ‘Twilight’ with an alien twist

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / February 18, 2011

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‘I Am Number Four’’ is a well-made, reasonably diverting night at the multiplex that will seem overly familiar to everyone except teenage girls. It’ll be a retread to them, too, but that’s why they’ll like it — a sci-fi/fantasy drama that’s moody and broody to the point of occasional near-coma, “Number Four’’ represents an acceptable holding action until the next installment of “Twilight’’ rolls around. The twist: Instead of a misunderstood bloodsucker, the adolescent hero is an alienated alien. His skin doesn’t glitter, but at several points his palms do glow and shoot out laser beams. So maybe the priests were right about masturbation.

As played by the chiseled young Alex Pettyfer, “Number Four’’ is an extraterrestrial princeling stranded on Earth, where he and eight others have fled after their planet was invaded by the Mogadorians, a sort of interstellar biker gang with piranha teeth and a fashion sense derived from obsessive viewings of “The Matrix.’’ Raised separately, each castaway has a mentor; Number Four’s is Henri (pronounced, um, “Henry’’ and played by Timothy Olyphant, his temples grayed so we’ll know he’s, like, old), who functions as a combination father figure/bodyguard/Yoda.

As the film opens, Number Three and his companion are bloodily dispatched, leaving our hero next on the Mogadorians’ sequential to-do list. Henri moves Number Four to a small Ohio town, dyes his hair, dubs him “John Smith,’’ and sends him off to high school with orders to remain invisible. Which everyone knows is impossible in the age of Facebook, even if you don’t fall in love with a free-spirited photographer.

This is Sarah (Dianna Agron, the pregnant cheerleader of TV’s “Glee’’), who’s so old-school that she shoots on film instead of digital. There’s also an elitist bully (Jake Abel) who torments the class nerd Sam (Callan McAuliffe) until John/Number Four intervenes and turns the villain’s wrath on himself. While everyone under 30 will look at the hero’s woozy, hushed scenes with his new love and think “ ‘Twilight’ told from Edward’s POV,’’ audiences over 50 will look at the friendship of hunky bad boy, misunderstood good girl, and class misfit and think “Rebel Without a Cause.’’ (John and Sarah even meet in a fashion visually similar to James Dean and Natalie Wood in “Rebel,’’ the glass of the principal’s office simultaneously dividing and revealing them.)

Anyone who saw D.J. Caruso’s “Disturbia’’ knows the director knows his oldies (to the point of infringement, according to the copyright holders of “Rear Window’’), but here he skates across the sur face of the story’s implausibilities and holds off the action sequences until the final half-hour. “I Am Number Four’’ is a Michael Bay production, but you’d never know it until the Mogadorians arrive at the end with two rampaging “pets’’ they keep in a tractor trailer and a leader (Kevin Durand) with a hilarious superiority complex toward Earth’s hapless ape-men.

At this point the movie comes alive — at last — in a satisfying eruption of mindless but expertly choreographed PG-13 violence. A high school is destroyed, the true nature of the hero’s pet beagle is revealed, and we at last learn the identity of the Tuff Babe (Teresa Palmer) who has been tracking Number Four since the beginning. Unless you’ve seen the promotional ads, since they stupidly give away the movie’s best surprise.

Mostly “I Am Number Four’’ is a pokey, pretty, predictable romance in which the boy is a shy extraterrestrial with secret powers and a royal lineage — your classic study-hall daydream — and the girl is a gentle alt-goddess. Pettyfer has the looks and just enough charisma to hold the camera, and Agron has a sleepy-eyed way of delivering her dialogue one beat behind that makes you pay attention. For all that, the film’s only poignant scene comes when Sarah brings her new beau home to a family dinner and John gets a rare glimpse of what it’s like to be unalienated.

“I Am Number Four’’ is based on a best-selling book supposedly written by an alien named Pittacus Lore; we should be so lucky, since the authors behind the pseudonym are actually Jobie Hughes and the disgraced autobiographer/Oprah Winfrey punching bag James Frey. A follow-up novel is due this year, but don’t hold your breath waiting for a movie sequel. Nor should we expect a prequel, since it would doubtless have to be called “I Am Number Two.’’ Sometimes the reviews write themselves.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. To follow him, go to www.twitter.com/tyburr.

I AM NUMBER FOUR Directed by: D.J. Caruso

Written by: Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, Marti Noxon, based on a novel by Pittacus Lore (a.k.a. James Frey and Jobie Hughes)

Starring: Alex Pettyfer, Timothy Olyphant, Dianna Agron, Teresa Palmer, Callan McAuliffe

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs, Jordan’s IMAX in Reading and Natick

Running time: 104 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (intense sequences of violence and action, brief language)

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