Sunday, March 27, 2011


As if the teenage world isn’t complicated or savage enough, recent cinema has proven no classroom scene is complete without a vampire, werewolf, psychic or witch. This time it’s Martians running for class president. Number Four (Alex Pettyfer) is an alien, one of nine exceptional youngsters saved when the planet of Lorien met its demise at the hands of the hideous, bloodthirsty Mogadorians. These nine young aliens each possess unique supernatural abilities and have been smuggled to Earth by warrior bodyguards to hide amongst the humans. A gang of leather-jacketed Mogadorians have decided they want to use Earth as their next brutal playground, but first they need to find and destroy each of the nine to ensure a clear run. This grand destiny is a heavy burden for Number Four, who just wants to meet girls and go to the jet skiing. Whilst living under a false name with his guardian Henri (Timothy Olyphant), his dream of perpetual spring break is disrupted when he finds out numbers One, Two and Three have been killed and he is next.

Despite the sci-fi/action spin, there is no denying that I Am Number Four is a classic teen drama, which subscribes fully to the fantasy of the American High School. Number Four navigates a tangle of cheerleaders, jocks, geeks, locker room pranks and of course, all the actors are older than high school age. Even though he’s an alien, Number Four looks like a bronzed, golden-locked James Dean and quickly assumes the role of the mysterious new kid on the block. There are elements of Twilight romance present, however the depiction of a male rather than female lead have thankfully cut short all those long stares and lovers’ tiffs. High school drama is as popular as ever, with TV shows Glee and Hellcats raking in cash. However it is interesting to note how I Am Number Four removes those usual priorities of gossip and sex in favour of a more action-based approach. Although this doesn’t stop the explosive fight scene finale from taking place on the hallowed ground of the varsity gridiron field where so many other crucial high school battles are fought. “Life and death” indeed.

Perhaps there is a level to which the high school drama has lagged behind culturally. Emos, Goths and the advent of the hipster are all sub-cultural phenomena defining the last decade in the classroom, however the high school romp is still principally a jock vs. geek situation. I Am Number Four describes indie culture by portraying Number Four’s love interest (Dianna Agron) as a girl haplessly obsessed with photography but no other characteristics. I also had to giggle a little when Number Four is sprayed with red paint in a prank and reluctantly changes into skinny black jeans and a loud, baggy jumper from the lost and found: Give him a fixie and some ray bans and you’d have yourself a hipster. Some brief patriotic pride was quickly stifled by the appearance of Number Six (Teresa Palmer), who spouts tough guy one-liners in an Australian accent and skips around in leather. Also, everybody has an iPhone and the film is peppered with all of those familiar vibrations, ring tones and message alerts. I was surprised at how effective this technique is, evoking familiar sounds to pull audiences in a little deeper. What really grabbed me, however, was the presence of Number Four’s charming Spaniel who accompanies our alien heart-throb into battle and turns out to be the only character I really rooted for.

Special effects and prop design left a lot to be desired, particularly the faux-Maori symbols each alien wears and the ubiquity of blue light shooting out of everything from Number Four’s hands to a magical rock that whispers in an alien tongue. Worst of all was the way in which the aliens turned to stone and then dust and blew away in flourishing swirls when they died. The make-up of the actors playing the Mogadorians, however, was a true return to science fiction wonderment, their facial gills and pointy teeth being a truly atrocious evocation of the faces of sharks. The final fight scenes were generally boring, and somehow the scariest part of the film ended up being a very eerie dramatisation of a county fair ghost train. I’d like to see the practise of chasing fairgoers with a chain saw get past royal show OH&S in Australia.

As I type this final paragraph I am checking the time. One of the Alien films is on in fifteen minutes and I’m reminded of how odd it is that ever since the advent of ‘teen culture’ in the swing era, more and more movies are being made according to a sense of ‘age-appropriateness’. Eat, Prey, Love was for the middle-aged, It’s Complicated for empty-nesters, Twilight for the newly-invented “tween” category, and kids film are now expected to entertain parents and children simultaneously. I’m not sure how healthy a diet of age-targeted film is. Alien was just a sci-fi. Not a sci-fi for kids or a sci-fi aimed at couples on dates or any other category. It’s often very important for a child or teenager to watch adult films, and many of us fondly remember our first non-kids’ films with fondness, seeing them as important points of growth in our lives. The Alien series was that for many of my peers, whereas the rating of I Am Number Four and its content make it a film that few of any age will find engaging or original. Like a square of white bread, it’s over-processed. Unfortunately it is difficult for any film with a narrow target bracket to be considered a seminal work, a classic or an artistic triumph. I Am Number Four is a teensploitation vehicle of the most generic kind and I expect that teenagers seeing it will have none of the fondness or admiration for Number Four in their adult lives matching what I have for the genre-defining Ellen Ripley in mine.

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