Like the recent low-budget sci-fi hit District 9 (with which it shares a numerical kinship), director Shane Acker’s 9 also started out as an attention-grabbing short film. Nominated for an Academy Award in 2005, the 11-minute, 3-D-esque, CGI-animated silent film has been expanded into a 79-minute feature courtesy of producers Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands, Corpse Bride) and Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch, Wanted).
As you might expect from that assemblage of visionary talent, 9 is a serious treat for the eyes. In a dingy, post-apocalyptic, steampunk-inspired world, we meet 9, a tiny, burlap-sack rag doll built by an aged scientist/inventor. With his dying breath, the scientist brings 9 to life. But what is his purpose? Wandering his way around earthly ruins stripped of any organic life, 9 soon locates a collection of similar creations—of which he appears to be the latest (and last).
Each “stitchpunk” has a different personality: 1 (voiced by Christopher Plummer) is a stubborn religious type; 2 (Martin Landau) is an adventurous explorer; 5 (John C. Reilly) is a loyal friend; 6 (Crispin Glover) is a visionary artist; 7 (Jennifer Connelly) is a dexterous warrior. And 9 (reed-voiced Elijah Wood)? Well, he’s, you know, the brave hero.
Ultimately, the characters don’t have a lot of depth to them. None of them evolves beyond his or her basic one-word characteristic. How could they, given the fact that they’re all just inanimate cloth dolls recently brought to life by some mysterious alchemical process? Not a lot of backstory to work with there. Their only purpose is to embark on some sort of generic quest and defeat the looming evil responsible for mankind’s total destruction. (Hey, better late than never.) It’s all a little nebulous—especially when you realize that the electromechanical monster they’re supposed to be battling is completely inert until 9 stumbles along.
Visually, 9 is a stunner. The setting is a unique mashup of bomb-shattered Blitz-era London, H.G. Wells’ Victorian tech-infused War of the Worlds and the robotic apocalypse from the Terminator films. The character designs (particularly the life-eradicating evil robots) are amazing conglomerations of scrap metal, rough-stitched cloth, creepy doll parts and skeletal remains. The tools that the stitchpunks employ (X-acto blade weapons and car headlamp torches) are similarly clever patchwork creations. No doubt about it: Acker’s smooth, CGI animation is overflowing with scrapheap inventiveness.
If only the storybook-simple script lived up to the images. With its grim setting and apocalyptic imagery, 9 is clearly aimed at adults. But the linear plot has barely any twists and turns, and it leaves nearly every mysterious element conveniently unexplained. The story is extremely “video gamey,” with most of the action confined to running, jumping on platforms and collecting various items. Compared to this, Toy Story was a freakin’ Dostoyevsky novel.
As simply a trippy visual treat, 9 works. Fans of The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride and Coraline will at least appreciate the goth/punk/sci-fi/toybox stylings. But the film spreads the intriguing concept of Acker’s short far too thin, adding precious little to fill out the premise. Sometimes, I guess, looks ain’t everything.