A young, handsome kid has extraordinary special powers vastly beyond the abilities of mere mortals. He is being chased by big, scary, ruthless, and relentless creatures with enormous weapons who have killed numbers One, Two, and Three. He is Number Four.
That’s John Smith (Alex Pettyfer of “Alex Ryder”). But it’s also kind of James Frey, best remembered for being touted and then flayed by Oprah after it was revealed that his memoirs were not exactly true. Frey has now created a best-seller factory, working with grad students in writing programs to produce mega best-sellers. This book is attributed to “Pittacus Lore” but in fact it is the product of Frey and a former graduate student named Jobie Hughes. That may explain the paranoid overlay of the plot and the portrayal of the main character as an unappreciated genius being hunted by powerful evil forces trying to destroy him.
Frey may not have special powers but he has a very good sense of what makes a marketable, if synthetic, story. There’s some Harry Potter, some Percy Jackson, some Buffy, a bit of “Twilight” and even some Superman and Spider-Man, but none of the genuine feeling of any of those books. The idea of a teenager with hidden source of extraordinary ability unseen and unappreciated by the grown-ups is undeniably a compelling one. Teenagers going through their own unsettling and powerful transformations can related to John’s discovering what he is capable of as he fights off the forces of evil. And so, in spite of the pre-fab foundation, there are moments when it is easy to get caught up in the story.
The action scenes are well staged and director D.J. Caruso (“Disturbia”) knows how to create paranoid tension and has a good feel for the way teenagers talk to each other. But Pettyfer does not have the acting ability or screen presence to carry off the a lead role, suffering by comparison to the far more able Timothy Olyphant (as his guardian), Callan McAuliffe (“Flipped”) as a brainy classmate, and Dianna Agron (less chilly than she is as Quinn in “Glee”). It’s likely to please the fans of the book but is too empty at its core to make many new ones.