Review: ‘I Am Number Four’ is familiar, safe Sci-Fi fare

Young adult literature, as a broad, overall genre umbrella, confuses me.

It’s a huge business these days.  It’s taken over giant swaths of the chain bookstores, and it seems like every time I turn around, there’s a new sensation, a new series that kids are crazy about, and Hollywood’s chasing those audiences like Boy Scouts on a snipe hunt, catching dozens of “Eragon”s or “City Of Ember”s for every “Twilight” or “Harry Potter.”

James Frey, the writer who was humiliated on Oprah Winfrey’s show after the truth about his “memoir” came out, has rebounded into a new career as the manager of a young adult literature sweatshop of sorts, where he manages a lot of young writers on a bunch of different ideas at once, and “I Am Number Four” is the result of one of those collaborations with a guy named Jobie Hughes.  The movie, in theaters and IMAX today, was adapted from the book by “Pittacus Lore” by Alfred Gough & Miles Millar and Marti Noxon, and it should be little surprise that a TV dream team like that has put together what feels like a very expensive pilot for a series I doubt we’re ever going to see.

It’s familiar fare.  Alex Pettyfer stars as “John Smith,” a teenager who is perpetually on the run, moving from town to town with Henri, played by Timothy Olyphant.  Henri is his bodyguard, and the two of them are fugitives from a distant planet called Lorien.  They are being hunted by the Mogadorians, big creepy dudes with sharp teeth and funky tattoos on their heads.  There are others like John and Henri, but they’re scattered, all hiding on their own.  And each time the Mogadorians catch and kill one of them, another tattoo on John’s leg lights up and burns him and tells him that they’re one step closer, and they’re coming for him as well. 

As directed by DJ Caruso (“Disturbia,” “The Salton Sea”), the familiar is handled with a certain amount of energy and visual confidence, and the film certainly moves.  John makes two close friends in his new town, Sam (Callan McAuliffe from “Flipped”) and Sarah (Dianna Agron from “Glee”), and the kids all have a decent, easy chemistry onscreen that should please fans of these books, I suppose.  I can’t really complain about anyone’s work because it’s the material that seems limp.  Olyphant gives his best Obi-Wan as John’s protective mentor, and Teresa Palmer plays a girl with a secret of her own who only really shows up for the last half hour, but who makes a strong impression in her brief screen time.  The kid saddled with the quarterback bully role, Jake Abel, is one of the few truly bad performances in the movie, but he’s not in enough of it to derail the film.

Structurally, the film is all origin story and very little forward motion, and the romance that is obviously meant to be one of the main draws of the material is played at the same low-wattage as everything else between the characters.  It’s not bad, per se, and both Pettyfer and Agron are sweet and generally likable.  Even when the Mogadorians unleash their secret weapons, the stakes in the film seem muted, and as much energy as Caruso brings to the film, it doesn’t matter.  It’s just too soft to be compelling.  When the most exciting scene in the movie takes place between two CGI monsters that aren’t even really characters, there’s something not quite working.

For the sake of this review, I attended the first show at the IMAX venue in Woodland Hills, where the speakers rattled my fillings.  People always think about the screen size as one of the main features of IMAX screens, but even in the IMAX Experiences houses, it’s the sound that I love most.  I love feeling like I’m sitting on top of a silo full of speakers all cranked to high, all balanced perfectly so it’s not just loud but also crystal clear.  IMAX was nice enough to send along a pass for me, and I’m glad that’s the way I saw it.  When the movie feels as much like television as this one does, it can use every little bit of help it can get, and IMAX certainly helps.

To bring things back around to my original point, here’s what I don’t understand:  what is it about this material that makes it “young adult literature”?  It’s a SF B-movie, and it happens to be about teenagers, but there’s nothing about this material that inherently distinguishes it from a lot of other SF B-movies.  Is it the puppy love that unites the genre?  It seems to me that this is more about who these stories are marketed to than anything about the stories themselves, and it sort of smacks of an industry-wide industry conspiracy to exploit an audience by making them feel like it’s all about them.

I didn’t dislike the movie.  It is handsomely made in many ways, and Caruso seems to have a sure hand both with his cast and with the technical demands of the film.  He’s one of those guys who has so far just moved from job to job, and his films feel somewhat impersonal.  I don’t think we’ve really got a sense of voice yet from Caruso, which is a shame.  When you see someone’s got chops, you want to see what they’re really capable of, and Caruso has been putting his talents to use in service of some weak material so far.  In that way, “I Am Number Four” feels like a perfect DJ Caruso film.  There’s nothing wrong with it, but it could be so much more.

“I Am Number Four” is open today in theaters everywhere.