A film review by Craig J. Koban

9 jjj

2009, PG-13, 79 mins.

With the voices of:
No. 9: Elijah Wood / No. 5: John C. Reilly / No. 7: Jennifer Connelly / No. 1: Christopher Plummer / No. 6: Crispin Glover / No. 2: Martin Landau / No. 8: Radio Announcer Fred Tatasciore / Scientist: Alan Oppenheimer / Dictator: Tom Kane / Newscaster: Helen Wilson

Directed by Shane Acker / Screenplay by Pamela Pettler, from a story by Acker

Here are nine reasons why you should see 9, a new animated  film that should not be confused with either DISTRICT 9 or the upcoming Rob Marshall musical, NINE: 

1.   It is based on Shane Acker’s fantastic 2005 Academy Award nominated short film               

Acker’s original short took nearly four and a half years to complete and was made while he was still an aspiring film student at UCLA (it is widely available on the Internet, specifically You Tube, for your pleasure).  The crafty inventiveness of 9 impressed Tim Burton so much that he decided to back a full-length feature film adaptation of it.  After Burton fell in line the film also attracted the attention of director Timur Bekmambetov (WANTED).  The feature length 9 certainly maintains an aesthetic grounding in both of these filmmaker’s worlds: it has that off-kilter, kooky, creepy and macabre vibe of Burton along with the flashy and innovative action intrigue of Bekmambetov, so having those two backing Acker's film is certainly not a bad thing. 

2.  Shane Acker is a visionary. 

9 is an atypically accomplished animated film for such a novice director, and it most certainly pushes the creative envelope as all memorable and enthralling animated films do.  Every once in a while we see the a small handful of animated entertainments that daringly attempt to push, stretch, and contemporize the boundaries of the medium, and 9 certainly is one of those efforts.  Which leads me to my next point…. 

3.  9 is liberating for how it's refreshingly adult in tone and mood. 

9 is most definitely not a film for young children, which is a welcome blessing.  That is not to say that the film should not be be shown to younger viewers, but there is an honest and sincere attempt here by Acker to stay radically clear of a cute, sentimental, and whimsical tone all throughout the film.   There have only been a small handful of animated films that have defied – and succeeded – at disrupting the modern and lazy mindset that animated films are only for wee young tykes.   9 is gritty, frequently violent (but not in a vicious, blood curdling way), feverously intense, and maintains a very spine-chilling aura of menace throughout. 

4.  9 proves once again how post apocalyptic storylines are such a fertile ground for unique and wonderfully envisioned films. 

Even though themes and stories of our planet being devastated by humanity-ended catastrophes have almost been done to death, the post-apocalyptic genre still allows filmmakers with a consummate vision and stylish aptitude to create pure, out of body escapism.  9 certainly owes a debt to many other past films, like THE ROAD WARRIOR, THE TERMINATOR, THE MATRIX, CHILDREN OF MEN, and – in terms of animated antecedents – WALL-E, but even when some of its elements feel borrowed, 9 nonetheless is such a breathlessly inspired world that you are willing to forget its derivativeness.  And, yes, WALL-E could is also a post-apocalyptic story, but even that film’s extraordinary production design and finely tuned execution feels substantially more agrreeable and cuddly than the grimy, nihilistic, washed out, and decayed planet that Acker sees in 9. 

5.  9’s storyline has a stark desolation and sullenness that many other modern-day animated films lack 

9 has a story of efficient simplicity.   

It tells of a parallel-esque Earth where it looks simultaneously like it could have existed either in the past, present, or even the future.  What we do have is a nifty and well crafted 1940’s styled newsreel footage within the film that tells of how humanity became fully entranced within their own creative might when they finally cracked human-thinking machines.  One particular machine was created for more peaceful uses, but it became apparent that it was a catalyst to a global war that was triggered by a vile and manipulating Hitler-styled dictator (complete with Nazi-like regalia). 

It is further revealed that during the pre-war period of economic decline, the totalitarian government actually commissioned scientists to find ways to make the nation prosper, which prompted one ingenious mind to develop the artificial brain that went on to cause the war.  Unfortunately for the scientists, his creation was taken away before he had time to thoroughly test it.  As a result, it was used by the dictator-leader to make more machines for war purposes.  Alas, as we all know in these machine-enslaved-by-man storylines, the machines snap under the pressure and begin to wage war on their flesh and blood captors. 

Just before all life on earth was eradicated, the daring and intrepid scientist that created the original thinking machine secluded himself in his workshop and created a mysterious talisman and a set of nine robotic numbered ragdoll-like puppets, hoping that they will survive the upcoming apocalypse, inherit what’s left of the earth, and allow humanity’s legacy to thrive.  He brings them all alive by transferring his soul into each of them and dies very abruptly after giving life to his final creation, 9. 

When 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood) awakens, he is born into a world that is utterly devastated by the machine-induced war, and many of his other doll comrades have been either lost forever or have been scattered across the wasteland.  At one point, while investigating his surroundings, 9 is attacked by a large mechanized beast, only to be saved by 2 (Martin Landau), but then 2 is carried off by the beast to its lair.  9 feels the need to return the favor and save 2, so he enlists the aid of the other leftover dolls.  Regrettably, the rescue plan is vetoed by 1 (Christopher Plummer), but 9 decides to go anyway and is assisted by 7 (Jennifer Connelly) and 5 (John C. Reilly).  Their rescue attempts culminate with an inevitable standoff with the very machine that caused all of the problems in the first place. 

6.  9 is filmed with spellbinding images of sustained precision and intrigue. 

Acker’s film world is a wondrous achievement for how it combines its end-of-times landscape, its interesting pint-sized main characters, and a sullen and disturbing moodiness throughout.  The opening sequence itself is a masterpiece of inventiveness: we see super close ups of the scientist’s fingers crafting the final stitches of the humanoid dolls, after which the dolls awaken and find themselves venturing off to the bombed out cityscapes of a scorched earth.  It has the same confident imagination and spirit of the best Silent films.

Acker has affectionately called his style “stitchpunk” which no doubt is a reference to the characters doll-like mannerisms and overt appearance, but also to the desolate and haunted remnants of his post-apocalyptic universe (which has undeniable real-world analogies to the blasted remnants of places like Warsaw in WWII).  Acker’s world is not as bright, flashy, colorful, and inviting as the post-apocalypse world of WALL-E: his landscape is a remorselessly barren, dirty, chaotic, and haunted land of rubble.  The animation of 9 may not have the level of minute detail of WALL-E  (what few recent animated films do?), but it most definitely is not a cheap looking and disposable CGI venture: all throughout we can sense Acker’s visual flair and sense of artistic exploration.  There is rarely a visual moment in the film that does not feel spontaneous. 

7.  Along with its visual dynamism, 9 strongest asset is arguably its somber and menacing atmosphere that creates genuine frights. 

9 is a surprisingly intense and nerve-wracking film, which is not doubt chiefly attributed to the overall story’s hide and seek sensation between the main heroes and the malevolent machine that wants to wipe them out.  The main massive machine – with its large, glowing red eye that is vaguely reminiscent of the Hal-9000 commuter and its numerous metallic limbs that hint at the most unnerving of insects - is a fiendishly disturbing element in the film, but some of its other robotic henchmen are even scarier.  One in particular made me wince: it’s a ghastly beast that is made up of a fracture doll’s head and has the body of a snake that mechanically eats its prey and sews them up within its body.  Yikes!

8.  The austere minimalism of the main stitchpunk characters is endlessly compelling. 

Perhaps 9’s greatest and most unforgettable visual are the dolls themselves.  They have large eyes, tiny slits for mouths, and are essentially large burlap sacks with feet and legs, but that is not to say that they are not delightfully expressive characters without any sense of audience involvement.  The subtle coup de grace of 9 is in how Acker and company manages to infuse distinct personalities in all of these tiny creatures, even when they all look astonishingly alike.  He is greatly assisted by the dependable voice talent that thankfully does not fall into the trap of being too obvious with their vocalizations – they play their parts fairly straight, which allows the characters to stand out more than the actor behind them. 

Granted, it sure is hard not to spot the vigorous inflections of a Christopher Plummer as number 1, but the remaining cast is effectively dialed down and low key: Elijah Wood plays his hero with the right level of plucky earnestness and gumption and John C. Reilly is also decent as his loyal sidekick.  Jennifer Connelly plays her fearless, determined, and nimble-fingered war heroine with the right level of feminine-empowered derring-do.  Then there is Crispin Glover who voices the artistically inclined 6 that draws all sorts of enigmatic and mystical images that serves as clues for the rest of his clan.   

9.  The film is not 3-D 

It’s truly astonishing to think how much Acker and the studio resisted the knee-jerk temptation to release 9 as a Digital 3-D film, especially in our zealot like age where just about everything seems to be geared for three-dimensional exposure.  It’s particularly odd seeing as the studio that released 9 also released the brilliantly stylized CORALINE from earlier this year, which was 3-D and one of the better examples of how to homogenize the technology within a story as to not shameless overwhelm it.  Ultimately, though, I think the traditional 2-D approach was the right instinct here, seeing as 9 has a considerable amount of wall-to-wall action and any ostentatious 3-D presentation would have all but drowned out the film’s sumptuous atmosphere. 

I guess I will cheat a bit and conclude with a final comment (#10), which is a small, nitpicky reason why you may not wish to see 9:  The underlining machines-versus-man-spawning apocalypse, as stated, is hardly anything new (The TERMINATOR and MATRIX films wholeheartedly have that market cornered, so 9 does not explore new territory here) and in parcel with that is the fact that – at just under 80 minutes – Acker seems to be having a tricky time extending his 11-minute student film into a longer feature length: 9 simply does not have enough story depth to justify its 79 minute running time.  No matter, because the film is a sure-fire artistic triumph for Acker and undoubtedly a handsomely envisioned and unusually thrilling and fearsome animated film, which is a very difficult trick to pull off during a time when audience-friendly and  saccharine genre efforts dominate the multiplexes.  Some critics have complained that 9 lacks the charm of WALL-E, but they miss the point altogether.  9 never hopes to charm, but rather what it does unconscionably well is that it unsettles and awakens viewers up from a complacent slumber that too many easy-going and kid-centric animated films have put them under.

In that sense, to hell with charm! 

  H O M E