Directed by Shane Ackner
Written by Shane Acker, Ben Gluck, and Pamela Pettler
Starring Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly, and John C. Reilly
Opens September 9
Darkness and destruction pervade throughout much of 9, directed by Shane Acker and produced by Tim Burton (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Batman, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street). Based on the Academy Award-nominated animated short film of the same name, 9 takes place after humans have been annihilated by machines, leaving the world in rubble and ruin. The hero is a rag doll who is initially unable to speak but has an adventurous streak. He meets 2, a kind and industrious individual who enables 9 to speak. A mechanized beast captures 2 and injures 9, setting the rest of the film into motion.
Known for his creative mastery, Burton doesn’t fail to evoke wonder with steampunk-inspired locales and deliberate sounds, ranging from gears grinding against each other to winds whipping through broken windows to flames crackling in the smoky air. The animation allows for crafted detail, such as creaky oil derricks and rows of missiles aligned with mechanical precision. 9 is an enjoyable study of film technique, watching scenes developing as if they were filmed with a camera instead of inked on paper (well, designed on a computer).
Despite these stylized accents on film, the plot runs thin. And with a weak dialogue (such as “We can find answers” and “What were you thinking?”), 9 presents average fare at the movies.
At the heart of 9 is the reversal of the wrongs of human nature. The film’s desolate setting is the result of an Inventor wanting to create a machine for good. Despite warnings from the Inventor, the Chancellor of the nation confiscates the untested and flawed machine to fabricate other war machines (reminiscent of Imperial AT-STs) to destroy other nations. Eventually, the Machine (as it is known in the movie, a mechanized octopus with a single red eye), corrupted by the machinations of humans, wages war on civilization.
In this rendition of the age of machines, only desolation and waste persist, devoid of life. 9 — along with the cautious 5, the rational and stubborn 1, the obedient and obtuse 8, the brave 7, the artistic 6, and the scholarly twins 3 and 4 — seeks to free 2 and others as they are kidnapped along the way. The Machine creates sentient robots to capture the other rag dolls as mechanized animals with sadistic methods of hunting and killing, including a prowling cat, a harpoon-equipped pterodactyl, and a snake, bastardized with a broken dolls face. The film’s imagery evokes an antiquated yet industrial look: hot air balloons serve as scout robots, windmills spin with cloth fan blades and a rusty generator whirs noticeably. It could be a scene after the battle of humans and machines if it happened after World War I.
The Inventor, in archaic hologram, tells 9 that the other rag dolls are pieces of his soul, which he transferred to the dolls in a form of voodoo. He was not able to infuse the incorruptible soul into the Machine before it was stolen from him by the Chancellor (whose leadership is eerily similar to that of Nazi Germany or Norsefire from V for Vendetta, salute and red flag included). The Machine, too, has the Inventor’s intellect, reflected in its inspired creations.
The film wastes very little time in its 79 minutes of run time, deliberately showcasing the brainchild of Mr. Ackner. The strength of the movie is in its mise en scene: the portrayal of decimated earth and the schemes of magical voodoo dolls. 9 expands upon the animated short but depends on a few deux ex machinas (no pun intended) for plot resolution.
A more coherent storyline and development would have enhanced the film experience beyond the attractive scenes, descriptive sound presentation, and evocative score. It would have been an adventure if 9 were devoid of dialogue, unfolding the plot through gesticulations and camera angles. To be sure, many of the scenes I enjoyed were hinted or foreshadowed. In one scene before the film’s resolution, the dolls play a nostalgic song on an old record player. As the outside sounds fade out, Judy Garland sings of hope and opportunity beyond fragmented light. 9 does, however, conclude with a hint of optimism amid devastating physical loss, fire, and rain.