Wednesday, September 23, 2009

In Theaters: 9

9 Poster from
9 has all the earmarks of being the kind of quirky, offbeat, and original sci-fi picture that we want to see more of. It has a great premise, a unique aesthetic, and an undeniable charm. Which is why it’s so disappointing that it’s merely good, and rather conventional. Directed by Shane Acker, who expanded a short student film into a feature, this animated postapocalyptic saga just about holds together, but seems strangely unambitious.

The title character, voiced by Elijah Wood is a creature of cloth and metal, given life by a dying scientist (Alan Oppenheimer) near the end of a war between man and machine. He wanders a wasteland, and meets another sack-cloth creature like him, named 2 (Martin Landau), before 2 is snatched away by a terrifying metallic beast. 9 falls in with a handful of creatures like him, all numbered, living in an old church under the direction of the cantankerous 1 (Christopher Plummer). 9 and 5 (John C. Reilly) set out to rescue 2 from the factory where he has been taken, but things go awry and our hero ends up reviving the vicious master machine that started the war against all life to begin with. To really set things right, 9 and his companions must discover more about where they came from, and about the device that brought him to life to begin with.

The film makes a severe misstep early on in having 9 accidentally bring the machine god back to life, through an act so careless it makes us lose sympathy for our protagonist for being so dumb. It’s not something that can be explained by the character’s personality- say, an unquenchable curiosity or some drive he can’t control- because he hasn’t yet fully developed one, and the entire sequence comes off as the film writing itself into a corner and having to cheat to get back out. It took a long time for the picture to start worming its way back into my good graces after that.

Now, it helps that it looks as good as it does. 9’s aesthetic may have Hot Topic written all over it, but the characters are inherently appealing, almost childlike in their wide-eyed wonder. The landscapes are bleak but striking, evoking imagery of both World Wars, and though the main machine god is something of a generic mass of metal spikes, his various creations are perversely brilliant.

Something seems to have gone wrong with the writing process in this picture. Apart from the early misstep already mentioned, the pacing of the film is just odd. Animated films tend to be short because the backers are literally paying by the minute, and this is no exception, but the unfortunate decision has been made to devote most of the picture’s 79 minutes to extremely elaborate action and chase sequences. These scenes are often quite clever in their use of props and setpieces, as the cloth-creatures and the beasts hunting them improvise weaponry from whatever can be scrounged up, but they leave precious little time for character development or exploration of the various themes the story raises. The film needs more moments like that when the hulking 8 relaxes by scrambling his electric brain with a magnet, or when the gang amuse themselves with a record player. But instead it runs from action scene to action scene; when 1 yells “To the bridge!”, one gets the feeling that he’s only suggesting they go that way so that there can be a scene on a collapsing bridge.

In the third act, the picture starts to develop its concepts a little more and give us some fascinating hints as to the underlying mystery. However, the climax this sets up is disappointingly conventional, not living up to what it hints at. I kept tripping over my own expectations; the imagery and the odd beauty of the film suggest a thoughtful and daring sci-fi picture, but the plot keeps getting dragged back towards conventional action blockbuster beats.

Now, in spite of all this, I enjoyed myself. It’s not a bad picture for what it is; the disappointment is simply that it underachieves. As such, 9 has the feel of an early draft; the bones are there, but there’s not nearly enough meat on them. It’s a gorgeous picture, and that counts for something, and it’s a world I find fascinating. More should have been done with this, but I can appreciate what is there.

Story by Shane Acker
Screenplay by Pamela Pettler
Directed by Shane Acker

Grade: B-

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