9 transports viewers into a meticulously created apocalyptic fantasy world. The premise is a popular fear in science fiction: Man finally creates a machine with the power to invent other machines- which inevitably means a mechanical apocalypse.
Viewers enter the story as if opening a children’s illustrated fantasy book. An old man carefully sews a burlap sack, a zipper, and some metal parts together with thread, creating a person-like sock monkey. Moments later, there is a blue light, and 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood) awakens to a world devoid of life. Left alone to navigate the chaos, 9 makes his way down the bombed streets with the one possession he kept from his birthplace-a mechanical medallion with unusual hieroglyphics. Soon, he stumbles upon #2 (Martin Landau), a frail but wise old inventor who helps him find his way, until he is attacked and taken by a mechanical beast. Hurt and left on his own, the newborn hero faints.
Awakening, 9 finds he has been taken into a tribe of his kind. With #2 gone, the group numbers have dwindled to only four: the cautious and domineering leader #1 (Christopher Plummer), friendly but conflicted #5 (John C. Reilly), the eccentric artist #6 (Crispin Glover), and the muscles behind the leader #8 (Fred Tatasciore). Three had already disappeared when venturing out into the wastelands: nonverbal twins–#3 and #4—and the one female of the group, warrior #7 (Jennifer Connelly). Because of this, as head of the group, #1 has instructed his people to never leave their safe fortress in a run-down cathedral, and insists that 9 may not leave to rescue his new friend. However, 9 cannot heed these rules, and sets out to brave the wastelands and save #2. But by entering the beast’s cave, the group get much more than they bargain for when they awaken a mechanical monster responsible for the destruction of humanity called the Great Machine. 9 must unite the ragtag team as one in order to find a way to defeat this enemy and preserve life on Earth.
The petite size of the characters adds to the visual splendor of 9. As the heroes are no bigger than an adult’s sock, the small world gives opportunities for innovative use of everyday objects and a new and mystical look to our everyday world. Battles take place with kitchen knives and scissor halves, and fearsome monsters are created from hoses, dolls, and engine parts. This completes the visual style of the gothic nightmare animation–and creates some of the coolest monsters I’ve ever seen on screen. Producer Tim Burton’s (Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas) style influenced the visuals, while producer Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted) definitely influenced the action sequences.
Unfortunately, the intriguing premise, the original battles, and the unique visual style could not make up for the lack of substance in this feature film. 9 is based on a 2004 Academy-Award nominated animated short of the same name by director Shane Acker. This 10-minute short is a blueprint for the 79 minute of the film, with all major plot points (and even specific shots) covered in the short version. Although this is essentially one large spoiler for the film, you can watch this short below.
Pamela Pettler (Monster House) wrote the feature-length version of the screenplay, but she did not add much to the 10 minute version. The longer version of the film seems to be nothing more than an extended cat and mouse sequence between our team of heroes and an array of mechanical (albeit very cool) monsters who come to fight them. The script does little to inspire connection with its characters, and has no deeper theme-unless you are someone who fears the coming of the machine apocalypse. Although scenes and references grasp at a hodgepodge of religions, ideologies, and mythologies, this makes it quite impossible to strain a meaning out of the competing ideas. Since Up!, Coraline, and most recent animated or CGI films (including screenwriter Pettler’s Monster House) have trained American audiences to find great truths about life within animated films, viewers will leave 9 feeling especially empty. A film is nothing if not first and foremost an engaging and relatable story, and sadly 9 doesn’t live up to its own visual inventiveness.
-by Rachel Imbriglio