So far this year we’ve already been blown up, beaten about the head and neck by giant robots and now, if you were wondering whether we make it through the end of the world, I’m sorry to report that we don’t. But ragdolls do. It makes sense considering that they, next to cockroaches, are nature’s toughest survivalists. The question that hangs in the air is what they are surviving for. Unfortunately, Shane Acker and the big names behind 9 don’t quite have an answer for us.
In the nearish future after the inevitable machine uprising that we keep hearing about, the scientist who brought the sentient technology down on everyone has created a host of ragdolls to carry on humanity’s legacy. His final creation, 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood) wakes up and quickly finds the rest of the rag-tag bunch hiding from the horrifying mechanical nightmares that still roam the barren wasteland. They all share a loose alliance to survive, but it isn’t until 9 finds a mysterious object portended by one of his comrades that the real mechanical nightmare begins.
Storming out onto the screen as if Jules Verne survived to become a filmmaker, the look and feel of 9 is undeniable. The landscape is textured with greens and browns only illuminated by dim sunlight and the blast of explosives that go off during the action sequences. It’s a style that works brilliantly – pairing a childlike wonder on the face of 9 with the aftermath of a horror that has left every living being on the earth that doesn’t run on electricity six feet under. It also blends two high concepts into what can only be described as nostalgic futurism. The world of 9 is a steampunk blend of science fiction that results in a robot-infested future that looks like it happened in the late 1960s. An homage to the flying saucer fear of the original The Day the Earth Stood Still or just what might happen if Sid from Toy Story grew up in the 1950s and studied how to build destructive robots, all of it works. And it’s often breathtaking.
So why start by discussing the look of the film? Because it’s the best part of the movie. It’s beautiful – and, trust me, it’s a feat for any filmmaker to make the look of a lifeless human body appear beautiful – but there isn’t all that much going on beneath the surface of the rubble.
The story is akin more to an action flick than a post-apocalyptic drama. It bounces from conversation to conversation as if the characters are simply waiting for the next attack. Although that next attack comes quickly, and despite it being intense, complex, and cool-looking, the overall plot is lacking so much that the movie comes off truly feeling like it was a short film that got expanded into a feature. Judging by the fact that as such is the case, it’s disappointing that the production didn’t do more to ensure that the story had enough meat to make it the full feature length.
Essentially, there are only two real main tasks throughout the entire film, but the biggest battle seems to be with getting anyone to do anything of substance. What could have been a half-hour of pure, blissful battles is padded with the meaningless or confusing until you’re also waiting for the next action sequences so that you’ll have something to entertain you on screen.
But that’s not to say there’s nothing of merit when the little burlap fists aren’t flying. The characters save a lot of the story weakness just by being intensely likable. 9 himself is a born leader that never falters, possessing a preternatural ability to strategize and motivate a crew despite being Johnny Come Lately. He creates a decent, if not fairly shallow, bond with 5 who most needs that sort of active guidance. He’s a sweet character, but he’s ultimately ruled by his fears, and John C. Reilly does a great job of bringing out those nuances in his voice. Christopher Plummer and Martin Landau vie for the top elderly spot on the roster displaying some pitch-perfect portrayals of a fearmongering leader and a far-too-curious old fool respectively. Jennifer Connelly also does a passable job despite her character only existing to bust into a dire action scene out of the blue or to give 9 knowing glances since there has to be a love story in every movie whether the main characters are held together with zippers or not.
I can’t really credit the actors with the reason I like the characters, though. Yet again, it’s the look of the film that wins out. The animation of the numbered warriors is detailed enough to give a wide range of human-facial expressions to already-adorable beings. They are tiny children’s things adrift in a world of slashing metal and rust and fire. As such, they begin with a strong amount of sympathy, and their physical appearance and design makes them lovable and interesting enough so that a lack of depth in their interactions seems clouded by charisma.
Their design is especially effective when juxtaposed with the downright frightening design of some of the creatures that threaten to kill them on a half-hourly basis.
Unfortunately, giant eyes can’t do it all, and the story begins to unravel by late in the second act. The crew has unleashed a giant force that hunts them down, and 9 has to figure out his destiny as set forth by his creator. Since none of this is built on very steady ground, and because none of the characters understand anything real about the world they live in (and therefore can’t really convey information on screen), the third act stumbles seriously and just about falls flat on its face by the end.
But don’t lose hope (even if all of mankind is dead already anyway) – the movie is a great, adorable little action flick. It’s got flat characters, an overly complex Macguffin that tries far too hard to make sense in a science fiction sort of way, and a score that feels like the conductor wasn’t paying attention to when the blood starts boiling, sure. But the action is fantastic – main characters gaining and losing the upper hand high atop dangerous battle grounds and the threat of the next fight looming large over a group of characters wondering who will die next. Plus, as previously mentioned, it all takes place in an environment that photographs of could hang in either an art gallery or a basement where D&D is played nightly.
Was I hoping for more? Honestly, yes. I was hoping there would be a clean, well-told story to grace a gorgeously painted background. Still, 9 can ultimately be enjoyed best as a mindless sci-fi, action movie even if it shares the unfortunate trait of its main characters of not having any heart underneath its fabric-textured skin.
The Upside: The swift intake of air you should experience when seeing the whole world of 9 spread out before your eyes; solid voice acting from talented actors; ass-kickingly good fight scenes and some great animated explosions
The Downside: A lack of any real depth or story or substance for the characters to latch onto; strange character choices; a third act that will drop your jaw in a bad way (unless you understand the concept of Green Soul Semen. This, I feel is not a spoiler because, who on the planet knows what the hell I’m talking about right now?)
On the Side: Did you know that it wasn’t Tim Burton, Timur Bekmambetov, or someone named “Shane Ackerman” that directed this movie? It’s actually a guy named Shane Acker! Bet you didn’t know that! Bet most people will continue not to know that! So, congratulations to Shane Acker for becoming this decade’s Henry Selick.