Director : Shane Acker
Screenplay : Pamela Pettler (story by Shane Acker)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2009
When we look back at 2009, it may very well be characterized at least in part as the year that bizarro animation went mainstream. The year opened with Henry Selick’s magnificently creepy and evocative 3-D stop-motion gem Coraline, then we got the strange environmentalist sci-fi parable The Battle for Terra this summer, and even Disney/Pixar’s gorgeous and moving Up verged into some decidedly wacky territory that I don’t think anyone saw coming. And now we have Shane Acker’s 9, a weird and wonderful but narratively lacking post-apocalyptic fantasy about rag-doll creatures battling the remnants of a fascist machine culture amid the ruins of humanity.
As an extension of Acker’s 2005 Oscar-nominated short film of the same title, 9 is replete with magnificent and terrible imagery that suggests a kind of alternate reality in which the world circa World War II was destroyed not by Nazis, but rather, in a Terminator-esque twist, by machines of humankind’s own devising. Yet, 9 is not a nihilistic descent into self-destruction, but rather an intriguing, if somewhat confused, nod to the importance of the human soul. The computer-generated visuals of destruction in what seems to be a perpetual state of nightfall are certainly bleak (although strangely beautiful in their own tortured way), but screenwriter Pamela Pettler’s (Monster House, Corpse Bride) intention is clearly to suggest that the unique and intangible spark that makes us human will survive even our worst atrocities.
The heroes of 9 are a bunch of diminutive creatures constructed out of burlap and fabric and bits of metal, wood, and machinery by a well-meaning scientist (Alan Oppenheimer) whose other creations were taken from him and misused by a fictional military regime, thus leading to the end of the world as we know it. Each one of these little creatures has been numbered, ostensibly suggesting the order in which they were created, which allows us to admire the scientist’s evolving designs. The film begins with #9 (Elijah Wood) developing consciousness and staggering out into the shattered world, where he runs into #2 (Martin Landau), who is out scavenging through the rubble. Later, #9 is taken in by a group of the rag-doll creatures led by the fearful and dictatorial #1 (Christopher Plummer), which also counts among them the slightly loony but potentially prophetic #6 (Crispin Glover) and the warrior-like lone female #7 (Jennifer Connelly).
#9 is introduced to the dangers of the world when he and #2 are attacked by a machine of unknown origin that has been fashioned to look like a skeletal dog and wants to destroy them at all costs, one of several genuinely harrowing sequences that are the film’s strongest asset. The inclusion of a winged contraption that looks like a ragged crow with a beak constructed entirely of wicked-sharp instruments and a demonic serpent machine with a broken-doll head suggest that Acker is attuned to the most unnerving elements of the horror genre, particularly the way in which the familiar can be made alien and terrifying with only minor adjustments. Acker is clearly a gifted director, and the speed and intensity of his action sequences give plenty of evidence that he knows how to convey the threat of violence and make it stick, especially when paired with his sound effects team’s sonic backdrop of uncanny mechanical noises and twisted natural sounds that effectively merge the soundscape with the charred visuals.
Beginning as it does in medias res, 9 baffles and intrigues, and one of the pleasures of Pettler’s screenplay is the way it slowly unfolds the backstory, allowing us to discover in detail what happened in the past and why things are the way they are. Unfortunately, not all the pieces really hold together, and when the film surges into its final stages involving a machine to end all machines that wants to suck the souls out of the rag-doll creatures, it starts falling apart under the combined weight of its elliptical narrative approach and baffling mixture of socially-oriented science fiction, heavy-machinery action sequences, and New Age-y mystical fantasy. For a film that’s not even 80 minutes long, it packs in a little too much but still feels like it’s missing something at the center.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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