9‘s release marks the second film in 2009 to be released with Tim Burton‘s name on it. More accurately it’s the second film released in 2009 directed by God knows who because the sight of “Burton” leads easily fooled people into crediting it as his film. February’s Coraline (my review) experienced similar problems, though that was more sleight of hand on behalf of its advertising as opposed to audiences engaging in the bad habit of jumping to conclusions.
Shame on me. I’m letting Burton steal the spotlight in this review as well.
9 sprang from the mind of animator Shane Acker, originally in the form of a short of the same name four years ago. Since then, the story, featuring a rag doll fighting off a monster that sucked the souls out of people, has matured into a slightly more robust 79 minute feature which follows the titular character (a rag doll “stitchpunk”, named in honor of the steampunk genre from which the film so heavily draws influence) through a post-apocalyptic wasteland as he tries to fulfill the mission his creator gave him– preserving life on Earth.
The movie has enjoyed the benefit of name association with both the seemingly ubiquitous Burton and Russian director Timur Bekmambetov (who directed 2008’s wish-fulfillment fantasy for angry teenage boys, Wanted); posters and trailers have boasted such hyperbole as “visionary”, building a level of expectation perhaps unsuited to a picture that originally started as an 11 minute short film (and whose director’s greatest achievement was doing animation for 2003’s Return of the King). Unfortunately for Acker, that expectation can hardly be used as a scapegoat for the ultimately disappointing final result; 9, good intentions aside, is a fairly hollow movie from start to finish that rides simply on its admittedly impressive design and aesthetic.
9 suffers foremost from deep-seated story flaws. It is not that the story sounds familiar, but rather that it’s told in a stilted fashion. At many points, 9 feels much like the original short film, having been expanded into a larger picture, doesn’t know what kind of story it wants to be. It’s partially a group-on-a-mission story, though when we meet the rest of the group (led by the domineering 1, voiced by Christopher Plummer) they are not busy at work trying to save the world; rather, by order of 1, they are striving to protect themselves. At this point 9 becomes a commentary on authority figures and the nature of leadership, but neither theme is given room to truly develop. The resulting film feels absolutely devoid of any sense of urgency or tension, a big idea picture stuffed into a run time far too constraining to allow its concepts to breathe; the Fabrication Machine, the invention responsible for the downfall of man, has to be stopped, but the film finds itself stuck in a nigh-interminable loop of 9 (Lord of the Rings star Elijah Wood) sparring with 1 over the group’s course of action. It has many places to go, and no real desire to go anywhere.
It’s a frustrating experience. 9 could have easily allowed for the group quest dynamic to develop while still giving 9 and 1 their conflict. Really what happened with the film is that under the constraint of an hour and twenty minute run time, each idea was subsequently allotted even less time to mature. Like our rag doll heroes, 9 feels completely stitched together out of only pieces of a complete movie. Given more time to let his ideas run free, Acker may have been able to tell a much more compelling story, and develop his characters further. As it stands, not a single character has an arc in the entire film save for John C. Reilly’s heart-of-gold common man, 5, and 1 (though the latter’s can hardly be called an arc, as 1’s character progression is horribly telegraphed; if by the halfway mark you can’t guess his fate, you haven’t been paying attention). The characters, at the end of the film, are all more or less totally unchanged by their experiences; we learn precious little about what makes them tick (no pun intended), and ultimately we aren’t given a whole lot of reason to even care. In this regard, the criminally under-utilized Martin Landau deserves immense praise for his voice work as kindly inventor 2; in a very finite amount of screen time, he is able to ingratiate his character to the audience such that his ultimate fate has palatable impact. If only the other characters had similar dramatic heft to them.
This isn’t to say that the experience of watching 9 is all bad. The admittedly anorexic story and character elements represent the movie’s flaws, but all of that is conveyed to the audience through incredible animation and a visual style that is striking and utterly individual despite wearing its influences on its sleeve. Acker is clearly a fan of steampunk, and even more clearly he took his time working on Return of the King as an animator for WETA to heart. In particular, the bat-like monster that attacks the hapless rag dolls in their cathedral sanctuary rings of the Nazgûl, but despite this there’s almost no doubt that this creature could have sprung only from Acker’s mind– the marriage of the high-concept epic story with the decidedly non-Tolkien fantasy genre feels totally refreshing.
9‘s cinematic landscape is also a beauty to behold despite its harshness; the world is sharp and jagged, painted in broad brushstrokes with the grime and decay of an industrial collapse. Telltale remnants of the war that wiped out humanity flit about as 9 takes his first steps into the land outside of The Scientist’s lab, and Acker must be praised for not shying away from the grimmest details, such as 9 stumbling upon the dead bodies of a mother and her child. Most impressively is 9’s horrified reaction to what he sees, evocative and expressive in its recognition of how bleak this world truly is.
There should be no doubt with 9 that Acker has a strong vision, and his talent is one to watch out for in the future. He has a knack for design and an obvious creativity that could make him truly special filmmaker. Unfortunately, the case with 9 is that that vision couldn’t be carried out by virtue of a lack of support in the film’s structure and composition. For all of the film’s visual impact, the film is ultimately quite lifeless.