9posterstarring Elijah Wood, John C. Reilly, and Jennifer Connelly
written by Pamela Pettler and Shane Acker & directed by Shane Acker
Rated PG-13 for violence and scary images.

Director Acker expands his 2005 Oscar-nominated short into an feature-length animated film. 9 (Wood), a living rag doll created by a now-dead scientist, wakes up for the first time to a post-apocalyptic wasteland in which humanity has died in a mysterious war. The only remaining inhabitants of this world are 9, the previous 8 rag dolls the scientist made, and a monstrous mechanical creature known only as “The Beast.” As 9 struggles to survive in this hostile environment, he begins to realize that he and his companions were created for a purpose, and that he holds the key to their collective destiny.

9 is a confusing little film that never quite seems to get across any big ideas or go anywhere terribly significant, despite hints at a much larger story left untold. However, the world that Acker has created is so absorbing and creatively-visualized that it will likely be some time before viewers notice the narrative shortcomings. 9 has a genuinely unique and inventive aesthetic that is totally absorbing from the very beginning. I never tired (during the film’s admittedly brief runtime) of the strange-but-familiar images that appeared on the screen as events unfolded.

The framework upon which this brilliantly-conceived tapestry is hung, however, is so flat and generic that it never seems more than woefully underdeveloped. It doesn’t help that nothing is given a name, leaving the movie’s backstory to sound like the bare-bones summary given at an early pitch meeting. “The Scientist” builds “The Machine” in service of “The State,” but the evil “Chancellor” allows its potential to be abused and it creates a swarm of mechanical nightmares that wipe out everyone and everything. No doubt this was done to make the story seem timeless and archetypal, but instead it comes across as lazy and bland.

No doubt one major cause of these shortcomings is the film’s transformation from a 10-minute short with no dialogue into an 80-minute film with an all-star cast of voice actors. In its original form, the story needed no explanation or context. It had its small but resourceful protagonist and an antagonist who pursued him across a dystopian landscape. Given the opportunity to flesh-out his highly-original world with an equally-original origin story, Acker has turned to some combination of Nazi Germany and the Terminator franchise, with some bizarre silliness about the transference of souls (reminiscent of 2001’s ill-fated Final Fantasy) thrown in without any sort of guiding mechanic to ensure that it makes sense.

The changes are not all bad, however. There was something endearing about the silent expressiveness of 9 and his companions when they couldn’t speak, but giving them voices and distinct personalities turns out to be one of this movie’s strengths. The greatest pleasure of the opening act is being introduced to the other characters, one by one, and then watching them develop and interact as individuals. The A-list talent providing the dialogue doesn’t hurt, either. They include Christopher Plummer as crotchety leader 1, Martin Landau as the more adventurous 2, John C. Reilly as the kind, nervous 5, and Jennifer Connelly as the bold, competent 7. Still, I have to admit that my favorite characters were the silent twins, 3 and 4.

Throughout 9 I couldn’t shake the feeling that this would have made a better video game than a movie. It had all of the elements of an excellent puzzle or adventure game, and the plot had all of the structural components of that medium. Certainly if I had been required to play my way through the discoveries and revelations of the movie, they wouldn’t have seemed as obvious, or as perfunctory, as they do.

I find Acker’s work here very promising for a first-time director. He has a flair for the visual and an excellent sense of the essentials of character. Because of that, I kept wanting to like 9 more than I did. Anyone who enjoys the original short (which can still be found on YouTube) will likely have a good time, as I did. Ultimately, though, I was left unsatisfied, and a bit underwhelmed. There is a lot to like, but audiences will be left scratching their heads and wondering what went wrong.

~ by Jared on September 11, 2009.

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