9 Review

I was loving 9 at first. Then it ended before the story even began.

It starts out promising. Newly woken stitchpunk #9 (Elijah Wood)—or so the director has named these rag doll robots—enters the world as Cillian Murphy in 28 Days Later: confused, lost, looking for answers in an abandoned city, not realizing the danger he’s in. Around him is a regular-sized world—a giant’s world to #9—filled with predatory robots made of junk scraps, forcing #9 and his kind to use ordinary household items and stationery as weapons and tools.

Mind you, this fantasy world is not a magical place. In fact, it’s quite horrifying. Acker gives us a doomsday future; a machine-dominated scorched version of our Earth in which the human race had already been wiped out. It gets dark fast. Shortly after his awakening, #9 spots his creator (Alan Oppenheimer) lying dead on the floor. He ventures outside, only to find more dead bodies, suggesting that the apocalypse has occurred and killed everyone.

(The screenwriter, Pamela Pettler, was also the writer for Monster House and The Corpse Bride. I’d love to ask Ms. Pettler if she plans on writing more animated corpses in her future.)

Directed and plotted by promising young talent Shane Acker, based on his own Oscar-nominated short film, 9 offers a tougher alternative to the tearjerking adventures that are staples of American animated films (of course, few of them were PG-13). The biggest difference is not in how dark it gets—and it is pretty freakin’ dark—but in its overall approach. 9 has no humor breaks, no sniffly heartwarming moments, no sense of wondrous discovery and no moral lesson (if you discount the basic working-together-to-reach-a-common-goal dynamic). It’s a straight sci-fi action thriller about the last remnants of humanity fighting back genocide, and it maintains that heavy tone for its 80-minute running time.

In many ways, this world that Acker has visualized portrays Judgment Day better than Terminator Salvation did. It takes itself just as seriously, but with less dick-measuring angst. 9’s landscape recalls WWII films more than the future, as the stitchpunks traverse bombed-out churches, barb-wired dunes and dug-out trenches occupied by crates of ammo. In this post-war environment, #9 runs into his eight predecessors: the self-preserving leader #1 (Christopher Plummer), sympathetic scientist #2 (Martin Landau), cataloguing twins #3 and #4, meek mechanic #5 (John C. Reilly), mentally unhealthy #6 (Crispin Glover), zealous fighter #7 (Jennifer Connelly) and burly bully #8 (Fred Tatasciore). It’s a superb collection of actors, but terribly underused.

In the first ten minutes or so of the film, #9 operates without a voice module, referencing the dialogue-free short film. Maybe it should have stayed silent, because the dialogue throughout are completely arbitrary. Voiced by big stars but given no distinct personalities, the stitchpunks would have made more of an impression if they had expressed themselves solely physically. The inability to make a strong impression beyond its looks is the film's primary deficiency.

The underlying premise is excellent—almost biblical even—with the story of a chosen one rising up to fix a world that its creator (be it god or scientist) declares a mistake. But rather than a developing story, we get a hero’s task list. Complete one, and a new one springs up, and off they go again, seemingly without recess. They're pretty exciting set-pieces, but one coming after the other, it’s one-note and repetitive. It’s also sadly obvious that dolls battling sentient garbage just can’t carry a feature by itself, yet 9 doesn’t offer anything else.

The visual design is obviously the film’s best asset, that's why it would’ve been nice to see more of that creativity at work. It’s such a cool set-up that it’s a shame that it did not build a denser world full of the creepy machines. The animation is very convincing, at least. In certain shots, I couldn’t tell if they were CG animation or stop-motion. Unfortunately with such a sparse story and stock characters—fittingly not even worthy of human names—watching 9 is like watching rag dolls jump around rubble for 80 minutes.

Unrefined and underdeveloped, 9 feels as if Acker had no direction to work with and concocted a series of action scenes while hoping that he can crack the story to string them together, but never did. It wraps up where a better movie would just be getting started.

"9" opens September 9, 2009 and is rated PG13. Action, Adventure, Animation, Sci-Fi. Directed by Shane Acker. Written by Shane Acker (story), Pamela Pettler (screenplay). Starring Christopher Plummer, Crispin Glover, Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly, John C Reilly, Martin Landau.

Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.


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