The most difficult reviews for me to write are for films that I am ultimately going to recommend, but then I have to spend most of the review defending the film from my own backhanded compliments. The terribly titled I Am Number Four is just such a film. Derivative, slightly sloppy, occasionally loud and obnoxious, it still managed to worm its way under my skin and deliver as a decent potential franchise starter.

Alex Pettyfer plays the titular, uh — number. One of nine aliens with special powers living in hiding on Earth, he’s looked after by Henri (Timothy Olyphant), a warrior from his home planet. Through mounds of exposition that make up the first forty-five minutes of the film, we learn that their home planet was invaded by an evil race called the Mogadorians. The Mogadorians killed everyone on the planet, but before they accomplished this, the nine aliens were sent with protectors to Earth. The nine each have individual powers which will one day help them rise up and stop the Mogadorians from taking over the universe. Or something like that.

Number Four is dubbed John by Henri as they are forced to leave their beach hideaway in Florida. It seems that a team of Mogadorians have landed on Earth and are killing the nine in order. Henri takes John to the small town of Paradise, Ohio, where he claims to have some business. Frustrated by his lack of contact with other people, John enrolls in the local high school over Henri’s objections. John looks like a strapping young man in his early twenties, but that’s okay because in the grand tradition of movies about high school, the students all look like they’re old enough to legally drink.

John befriends Sam (Callan McAuliffe), a science nerd who is convinced that his father was abducted by aliens. As John and Henri learn more about who Sam’s father is, that belief might just be justified. John also meets and falls for Sarah (Dianna Agron), a lovely, photography-obsessed student. This leads to all sorts of stereotypical teen first-love angst, including problems with Sarah’s jock ex-boyfriend, Mark (Jake Abel), whose father just happens to be the suspicious local sheriff.

And did I forget to mention the mystery woman (Teresa Palmer) with her own powers who is tracking John and Henri?

Needless to say, this is a ton of plot to shove into a movie that runs less than two hours. I would take the film to task for not cutting some of the more extraneous plot details, but director D.J. Caruso has his hands tied by the fact that the film is supposed to be the first in a series. When taking that into account, it’s actually surprising how well I Am Number Four turned out. This could have been a dispiriting failure along the lines of The Vampire’s Assistant — a film that felt like one long first act setting up all the fun for films down the road. But Caruso is able to make John just an interesting enough protagonist and capitalize on a great performance by Olyphant that I was willing to sit through the explanations and plot setups until the overblown, but rousing, third act finally rewarded my patience.

The film is incredibly derivative, but that’s not always a terrible thing. After all, the original Star Wars films are hardly the most original pieces of cinema. It’s how you handle the worn elements that are being cobbled together that makes or breaks a film. In the case of I Am Number Four, the story swipes from the already mentioned Star Wars, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (the series, not the film), cult TV show Roswell, and the Harry Potter novels. Just enough of these elements work to make the film entertaining, but I wouldn’t have minded removing the Roswell element from the equation. The high school angst subplot feels like such small potatoes when compared with the fact that the Mogadorians are planning to take over Earth. It also doesn’t help that the romance between John and Sarah lacked spark. Pettyfer works fine as a square-jawed action hero, but his efforts to portray longing just feel cold and robotic. Still, he’s passion personified when compared to Agron, who looks like she’s constantly sucking on a lemon.

The Star Wars and Buffy elements work the best with Pettyfer and Olyphant playing well off each other in their mentor-student relationship and Pettyfer and McAuliffe bonding convincingly as mismatched friends whose individual talents compliment each other. Their relationships go a long way to keeping the film watchable through the sections that drag in the first two acts.

But even with the goodwill the film had built up with me, it would have all be for naught if the third act action scenes had been fumbled. Fortunately, Caruso delivers the goods with some fight choreography that’s impressive not only for the excitement it brings but also because it largely avoids the choppy, hide-what’s-actually-happening style that has become routine for action scenes. The fight scenes here make sense — you can see the logic to each participant’s fighting style.

Surprisingly, considering the film is based on a teen novel, the stakes feel very high. This is helped along by the fact that the Mogadorians are actually scary. They look like a cross between the unmasked Jason Voorhees from the original Friday the 13th films and Maori tribesman. They also take a perverted delight in their contempt for the human race. A scene where the leader of the Mogadorians (professional hardass character actor Kevin Durand) casually makes fun of a conspiracy nuts’ comic books before killing him is very disturbing. You actually get the feeling that this is a race of psychopathic killers who will stop at nothing.

It’s this kind of detail to key scenes that elevates the film above just being a derivative mess. It’s not an original idea, but Caruso and company do an impressive job of making the disparate elements work just well enough that I’m looking forward to the story continuing.

Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.

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