Shane Acker’s 9 is a movie that has been much anticipated around BSCReview. We pretty thoroughly covered the media blitz for this movie, all of which I found intriguing and enticing: the date tie-in, “9/9/9: 9.” The taglines—“When our world ended, their world began,” and, “This isn’t your little brother’s animated movie.” The previews that showed crumbling relics of human civilization awash in a post-nuclear-holocaust yellow and creepy machines that have taken the place of natural predators. The teasers that just flashed the numbers and characters 1-9 with epic music scoring the montage.
The one part of all the promotional frenzy that I wasn’t sure about was the recent change to “Tim Burton’s 9.” It’s been “Shane Acker’s 9” since I first heard about the project, and all the Tim Burton (who produced) reference seemed to do was make people like one of my friends think, Fake Burton? Nah. But the rest of the publicity storm was top-notch. In short, it hinted that the story would be dark, mysterious, and full of action, with a visually unique (and therefore satisfying) motif. Certainly I went in with those expectations and anticipated they would be met. And I really wanted to be able to give the movie a glowing review, but it turned out to be a mixed bag, at least for me.
The story follows 9, who awakens alone after the war that ended all life on Earth is over…all life, that is, except mechanical creatures. 9 stumbles out into this brave new world and encounters another being like himself, who calls himself 2. After 2 sacrifices himself to The Beast (a mechanized cat skeleton with glowing red eyes, AKA awesome monster number 1) to save 9, 9 becomes the catalyst that changes the world dictator 1 has imposed upon the others of their band. During a rescue attempt, 9 awakens something dark and terrifying, an enemy that will hunt them to an inexorable extinction…unless the remaining members of the group can work together to stop The Machine.
So far, so good. The movie had me till about two-thirds of the way through. That was the point where it became clear that the main plot and action hinged upon the creations discovering the truth of their making—a truth that turned out to be the weak link in an otherwise ironclad production. Basically what 9 seemed to suffer from was having been born as a really great small idea that was expanded into something not as original as its initial inception. The look and setting were as fabulous as Acker’s short film and the previews had seemed; it was the backstory created to go with the feature-length production that dragged it down.
Aside from the fact that I thought the big reveal was cliché, not to mention too politically correct for my tastes, I felt like there was too much exposition. I mean this in two senses. First, there was too much information given for the world, which was cooler without it, when everything was mysterious and dangerous and we didn’t know why it was the way it was. This may just be my personal aesthetic about SF/fantasy worlds, though; I’d rather have too little exposition than too much, while many people find such ambiguity frustrating or unsatisfying. Feeding into the over-saturation of information about the world is the fact that this data feed interfered with the action. The story began to focus too much on discovering the truth, while I felt the movie would have been stronger if it were based around retrieving the kidnap victims or destroying the machine without uncovering the whole backstory behind the apocalypse. But if you like your movies to have a clear explanation delivered with a bow, well, this one has it.
Aside from my tastes in world-building and story-telling techniques, however, the movie kind of ignored its own marketing directives by going the direction it did. I mean, if you’re going to advertise it in a way that appeals to adults as much as (more than?) kids, you have to keep some level of sophistication in the story. For a younger audience, the revelation of the mystery and the ultimate sacrifices and final outcome would probably seem more emotional and profound. I found myself curiously unmoved as I watched what should have been the climax but was really the denouement—after 9 uncovers the explanation for everything, the rest is merely going through the motions to bring the story to its physical conclusion after the mental/spiritual closure has already been drawn.
This movie was not a crap movie, even if it didn’t leave me raving about its storyline. The visuals were rocking. I loved the faded-out, post-apocalyptic color palette—the only colors besides the neutral sickly dust and moratorium gray of the world were the oranges of the fires, the reds of glowing evil machine eyes, and the avada kadavra green of the death ray. When the set switched from the dull brown of day to the slaty shadows of night, it went from blasted-out destruction to eerie desolation; there was no real sense of safety in any of the settings.
Some of the monsters were genuinely creepy. From the dead cat that reminded me of my high school anatomy & physiology class to the bat with saw blades for a snout to the scorpion that used the dead body of 2 for its bait, they were caricatures of Halloween creatures we know, except worse, because they had sharp metal blades and red Cylon eyes. (Was this an intentional parallel, showing this movie to be another take on the theme, “Humanity’s children have come home”?)
The animation was smooth, and the filming interesting. There were angles obviously designed to maximize the sense of space—these creatures were something like 6-8 inches tall, wandering through our abandoned landscapes—and others there to put the audience in 9’s shoes (I think this was shown in 3D on some screens? If so those angles were also for the 3D effect).
The voices were also great, as you would expect from a cast of all-stars that included Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, Crispin Glover, Elijah Wood, John C. Reilly, and Jennifer Connelly. Danny Elfman (of The Nightmare Before Christmas and many other Tim Burton projects fame) had a hand in the musical themes. The production value of this movie was definitely high. If you’re the kind of person who will watch a movie just to look at cool shit, you should see 9 just for what it looks like. It’s an interesting jangling of futuristic and retro, that’s for sure.
In all, I think 9 delivered a great execution of an idea that could have been better. If you’ve got kids, take them—it’s a helluva lot better than most of the kids’ movies that come out. I think my enjoyment of the movie was tempered by having very high expectations; if you go in clean, you’re much more likely to come out satisfied.
Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.