Friday, September 11, 2009

9: About a 7

9 (2009) • View trailer for 9
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence, quite scary images and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.11.09
Buy DVD: 9• Buy Blu-Ray: 9 [Blu-ray]

Its way-cool creations, mesmerizing landscapes and grimly compelling tone notwithstanding, 9 is something of a mess.

It's also quite a downer, but that's to be expected of a post-apocalyptic setting, even in an animated film.
The steampunk-style, post-apocalyptic world that our stitched-doll hero finds
himself in is filled with dangers, as becomes clear when a new comrade comes
to a rather unfortunate end.

The major problem lies with director Shane Acker's clumsy and contrived story  co-scripted with Pamela Pettler  which too often feels as if stuff is being made up on the fly (a frequent failing of so-called steampunk sci-fi, it should be mentioned: all high-concept, no narrative heft).

I wasn't the slightest bit surprised to find Russian writer/director Timur Bekmambetov among this film's eight (!) credited producers, because his Night Watch/Day Watch series is exactly the same: marvelous to look at, and dripping with golly-gee-willikers imagination, but utterly incomprehensible.

Even the most mind-boggling images and concepts can't survive when mired down by daft, incoherent storytelling. Absent the obvious cuteness factor, we wouldn't even have a reason to empathize with the "stitchpunk" protagonists who drive this film's clumsy storyline.

Like so many before him, Acker has borrowed hoary clichés from numerous earlier sci-fi sagas, stitched them together much like his diminutive heroes, and unleashed the results with the hope that we'll not recognize the deja vu all over again. 9 actually is expanded from an Academy Award-nominated 11-minute student film short he completed in 2004, which may explain why he raided established sci-fi lore to beef it up.

9 begins as the title character achieves sentience in a home library containing a human body, scattered papers and a mysterious, button-sized electro-mechanical doohickey that our Barbie doll-sized protagonist carefully stuffs inside his zippered front. Fearfully making his way outside, 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood) discovers a bombed-out landscape reminiscent of Dresden following the WWII blitz.

Although the film is wholly computer animated, 9's "look" echoes the stop-motion puppetry of, say, George Pal, Jan Svankmajer or the Lauenstein brothers. The blend of retro character work and painterly backdrops is quite effective. (Acker cites Zdzislaw Beksinski's fantasy artwork as an inspiration.)

We eventually learn that mankind foolishly allowed a fascist dictator-type to interfere with the development of an intelligent and self-sufficient "Great Machine" capable of designing and building its own mechanical "peace-keeping" army. As anybody familiar with the Terminator mythos could have predicted  or, going back to classic sci-fi, readers of the Jack Williamson humanoid saga  the machines take over, orchestrate war on mankind, and destroy life as we know it. Utterly.

The final stage of the machine assault involves some sort of super-poisonous gas that kills every living thing on planet Earth. Not so much as a gnat remains.

9 gets this back-story after encountering other, similar stitchpunk doll creations much like himself; as the number on his back suggests, he's the ninth such construct. The others have been carefully sheltered by 1 (Christopher Plummer), a domineering type who uses the powerful, none-too-bright 8 (Fred Tatasciore) as muscle to keep the others in line.

1 explains that they've taken refuge in a church and "waited for the sounds of the machines to finally stop." This probably would have taken awhile  let's not forget how long Wall-E kept ticking!  and yet, earlier in the film, we watch as 9 stumbles past human bodies that look as if they fell and remained in situ only days earlier ... most notably the chilling tableau of a mother and young child.

So, which is it? Have decades passed, or merely hours? Or did the poison gas also have some unmentioned properties of tissue preservation?

Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy.

1, something of a jealous despot, sent the far more practical 2 (Martin Landau) out on a suicidal scouting mission; that's how 9 is found and brought into the fold. 3, 4 and 7 are long absent, presumed dead; 6 (Crispin Glover) is an erratic artist beset by visions; and 5 (John C. Reilly) is a stalwart and nurturing engineer.

Wanting to find the now-missing 2  who was attacked and carted off by a skeletal, cat-like machine  9 enlists the fearful 5 in a journey to a towering mechanical charnel pit with more than faint echoes of Mordor (more "borrowing" on Acker's part). They succeed, to a degree, finding both 2 and the long-missing 7 (Jennifer Connelly), the latter having made herself into a kick-ass, machine-battling ninja warrior.

Unfortunately, the too-inquisitive 9 finds a receptacle perfectly sized to fit that special doohickey ... and, before anybody can stop him, he plugs it in.

Which revives the long-dormant Great Machine.


Although 9 and most of his comrades escape, the Great Machine then resumes its original purpose, rapidly designing the animalesque nightmares that will henceforth attack our heroes for the rest of the film: mechanical birds, snakes and particularly ooky, scuttling spider/scorpion monstrosities.

On a primal level, it's easy to sympathize with our tiny stitchpunk heroes: They're horribly out-numbered and outsized by much larger, stronger, resilient and numberless foes. But these ludicrous odds merely reinforce the ever-widening chasm of narrative nonsense in Acker's story, because it becomes increasingly ridiculous to watch these quite fragile dolls survive one encounter after another.

They're held together with cloth, for goodness' sake  healing a "broken leg" with needle and thread, at one point, is good for a mild chuckle  while their mechanical enemies are all sharp blades and hard metal shells. While we can assume that 9 and the others aren't "alive" in the strictest sense, and therefore not as vulnerable to being bashed against walls or dropping from great heights, the laws of size, scale and physics still hold sway.

Or they would in a logical story, anyway ... but of course Acker and Pettler just kinda take a kitchen-sink approach to the horrors tossed at their tiny heroes. The result has about as much narrative coherence as a pinball machine.

Perhaps more simply, we also can't help wondering why the Great Machine even wants to destroy 9 and the other stitchpunk creations. They're not people, and they're no more alive than the Great Machine's minions ... so why the animosity?

Everything builds to a climactic third act that goes even farther off the rails, while pausing long enough to toss in another way-too-familiar cliché: a randomly selected phonograph record that turns out to be Judy Garland warbling a song from The Wizard of Oz, intended as a metaphor for lost humanity. Really, can we declare a moratorium on "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"?

And while Acker clearly intends his film's rather abrupt final scene to convey a "happy" ending, I suspect most viewers  and particularly any youngsters in the audience  will have trouble embracing that concept.

On the positive side, Wood, Connelly and the other voice actors imbue their characters with quite distinct personalities. Connelly's 7 has plenty of heart, and Reilly brings considerable tragedy to the always nervous 5. Wood persuasively embraces a tougher job, since 9 is responsible for just as many catastrophes and poor decisions as minor triumphs; we can't help wanting to smack him every so often. He seems a poor choice as the de facto leader of this pack.

To his credit, Acker doesn't overplay his (flimsy) hand; the film clocks in at an economical 79 minutes, and Nick Kenway's editing is zippy enough to blast past the worst logical flaws ... at least until the final credits roll. At that point, it's impossible to avoid picking this story apart.

As I lamented, after watching Bekmambetov's Night Watch and Day Watch, it's a shame to see so much creativity squandered on such a laughably silly and frequently incomprehensible storyline. Acker clearly has talent; now he needs the wisdom to hire somebody who can write.

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