Regardless of its legions of fans, the Harry Potter series has a problem: in trying to create a fantastic journey, the storyline dumbly leaves the kids in school. Granted, the boarding school setting recurs in the British storytelling tradition, with the milieu’s inherent social commentary. (A fine example on screen: Marek Kanievska’s “Another Country” (1984), in which the school’s social structure realizes the extremity of politics.) But if a youthful journey is to begin, then shouldn’t the kids abandon school, the restraining system that kills daydreams?
“I Am Number Four” suffers from a similar problem. This fantasy, about a chosen one hunted by evil aliens, limits much of its action to high school. After experiencing a portentous burn on his leg – while about to hookup during a nighttime swim (what the often-transplanted kid really needs) – this hero (Alex Pettyfer) is ordered by his surrogate father (Timothy Olyphant) to flee to Ohio and, again, abandon his identity and previous life. The more John (his new name) uncontrollably reveals he is Number Four (of select group of near-extinct aliens who can conquer the enemy), the easier he will be found. “Four” promises flights of fantasy with its hyper-real premise, yet the film keeps John at school, and a victim of clichéd bullies and a nerdy sidekick.
As shown in “Disturbia,” director D.J. Caruso has a knack for making teen years seem the blandest of one’s life. Caruso and his writers resort to teen angst, which sinks the film into banality. Pettyfer plays a putative misfit, even if this beefcake actor could turn heads in an episode of “One Tree Hill.” A superhero in the making nonetheless, Pettyfer would never be the automatic target of locker-crusing jocks – especially when showing right away he can manhandle them on a whim. With telekinesis and spectacular bounds, John soon surmounts reality like Keanu in the “Matrix” – hohum.
At his new high school he’s found Sarah (Dianna Agron, the lovely star of TV’s “Glee”), also barely registering as an outcast. The prospect of human-alien sex seems like a normality, hardly the demented experiment that last year’s “Splice” showed it to be. Caruso throws in some naughty sexual imagery, when John zaps Sarah and another blonde (the film’s most unlikely character) to ecstasy with a palm-borne blue ray. Sure smells like the cultural repression courtesy of Ms. Stephenie Meyer.
Alien-as-social-outcast is as familiar as the punk alien motif. These hunters, called Mogadorians (or Moags, for short), are lizard-like, while their leader jests as if one more interested in hearing the sound of his own voice. Perhaps it’s best that Caruso kept his hero locked down in high school. This film has the imaginative power of concrete walls and rows of lockers.