“I Am Number Four” is a flashy, lunkheaded sci-fi extravaganza sure to appeal to teenagers who like their interplanetary warfare bloodless, their high-school soaps squeaky-clean and their numbers countable on one hand. Blandly but passably adapted from Pittacus Lore’s popular 2010 novel, this Earth-set saga about a race of benign alien refugees fleeing from genocidal pursuers has been outfitted with the fresh young faces and furious f/x one would expect from producer Michael Bay. As such, healthy if not out-of-this-world biz seems likely for a franchise launcher that won’t dislodge “Roswell” or “Smallville” from the small-town space-invader annals.
Those TV series aren’t the only forebears discernible in “I Am Number Four’s” highly derivative DNA. Drawn from the first installment of a proposed six-book cycle by Lore (the pen name of James Frey and Jobie Hughes), the pic also contains traces of “X-Men,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Escape to Witch Mountain” and “The X-Files.” The latter is actually referenced at one point by a side character, Sam, whose long-lost dad seems to have been beamed up to the mothership. That thread will no doubt be picked up in the sequel.
Pic opens with a tense, jungle-set prologue that climaxes with the ambush and murder of a young man — the third in a sequentially linked chain of nine survivors from the destroyed planet Lorien. Now they’re being hunted down, one by one, by the Mogadorians, an evil, heavily tattooed race of leather fetishists who look more hellbent on getting into a death-metal concert than achieving universal domination.
As decreed by ancient charms of yore, the Mogadorians can kill the Loric survivors in numerical order only, and Number Four, a Florida-based beach bum who goes by John Smith (British thesp Alex Pettyfer), knows they’ll be gunning for him next. By now accustomed to living like nomads, John and his guardian, Henri (Timothy Olyphant), head for the rural burg of Paradise, Ohio, where Henri sternly warns the young teen to lie low and blend in at the local high school.
But John can no more blend in than Ferris Bueller, and on his first day, he manages to run afoul of resident bully Mark (Jake Abel); befriend the scrawny, UFO-obsessed Sam (Callan McAuliffe); and make googly-eyes at the very hot Sarah (Dianna Agron), whose passion for photography marks her as a sensitive (but still very hot) alterna-chick type. Pic’s target audience will recognize Agron as head cheerleader Quinn Fabray from “Glee,” and it’s telling that her material here doesn’t rep much of a stretch; “I Am Number Four” is a movie that posits the existence of amazing extraterrestrial life and plays out with all the gravity of a “Dawson’s Creek” episode.
That blend of intergalactic stakes and everyday tweener angst might have worked if the screenplay had fleshed out John’s warring impulses: his desire to lead a normal adolescence, but also his excitement over his rapidly developing alien powers as he goes through the Loric equivalent of puberty. But Pettyfer, a former model being groomed for Stateside stardom (he stars in next month’s “Beastly”), never registers as more than dully likable here, and there’s no visceral or hormonal kick to the scenes in which he tests out his superhuman abilities. Shots of John learning to leap off cliffs and wring guys’ necks from afar should leave us pumped and exhilarated rather than miffed that such gifts were bequeathed to some kid with a crummy dye job.
Indeed, the pic’s stumbling block is its inability to convince us we’re watching someone extraordinary — admittedly a difficult thing to pull off in a movie marketplace crowded with teenage aliens/wizards/vampires/superheroes who supposedly walk among us undetected. It’s possible that future franchise installments will flesh out the mythology of Lorien and explain, for one, why its inhabitants so closely resemble the moody youth of planet Earth, but the script, perhaps wisely economizing, provides little context beyond John’s banal opening and closing voiceovers.
Impersonally helmed by D.J. Caruso (“Eagle Eye,” “Disturbia”), pic does afford its share of diversions. Olyphant brings some of his usual edge to the role of John’s tough-loving mentor. There’s a really cute beagle who comes to John’s rescue more than once and is clearly the brains of the whole operation. And for better or worse, “I Am Number Four” becomes a real Bay movie in its climactic blowout, replete with mammoth CGI monsters, football-field-sized explosions and a smokin’ display of marksmanship by arresting Aussie actress Teresa Palmer. She plays Number Six, and she stomps through the movie with the furious impatience of someone convinced that better things lie ahead. Let’s hope she’s right.