9 (2009) dir. Shane Acker
Starring the voices of: Elijah Wood, Christopher Plummer, John C. Reilly, Martin Landau, Jennifer Connelly and Crispin Glover
By Greg Klymkiw
“9” is blessed with a simple narrative that, not unlike the little engine that could, drives the picture forward with the force of a powerful springboard – yielding big ideas and exquisitely generating emotional responses as viscerally thrilling as they are profoundly moving. Based on his acclaimed award-winning and Oscar-nominated short, director Shane Acker attracted the likes of such visionaries as Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov to assist with the production of his feature debut. Blending the dark magical qualities of the former and the razzle-dazzle rollercoaster ride action of the latter, Acker goes the distance and then some with this astoundingly gorgeous animated sci-fi adventure. He also brings his own unique visual style to the fore and creates a movie that careens through a futuristic, yet retro look that is altogether unique. On a story-level, Acker builds to a suspenseful climax and a conclusion that is almost as awe-inspiring in its sense of spirituality as the final moments of Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”.
It’s a ride that keeps you glued to the screen and desperately wanting, by the end, to not leave the cinema. He keeps you wanting more and this is a considerable virtue, indeed. However, rather than leaving unanswered narrative questions, you are left with much that is cerebral and, dare I say, philosophical.
Set in a post-apocalyptic world that resembles our own (but early 20th century retro), a strange little rag doll with the number 9 stitched on his back (Elijah Wood), comes to life in a ramshackle room with the long-dead body of an old man, his inventor (Alan Oppenheimer). He eventually discovers others like himself, tucked away in a bombed-out cathedral while huge metal machine monsters roam the lifeless planet seeking to destroy the rag dolls. Led by the patriarchal #1 (Christopher Plummer), the dolls are convinced they must hide to survive, but #9 is convinced that the key to their continued existence is to fight back, and most importantly, try to discover the reason why the monsters are hell-bent on wiping them out. #9 leads the battle charge with the help of #5 (John C. Reilly), a mechanical whiz, #2 (Martin Landau), an old scientist, #6 (Crispin Glover), a feverishly crazed artist, #7 (Jennifer Connelly) a “gorgeous” ninja-styled ass-kicker (a “ninjette”?) and the hulking more-brawn-than-brains #8 (Fred Tatasciore). As it turns out, it’s not just the existence of the rag dolls that’s in peril, but the potential to bring real life back to the planet.
One of the extraordinary aspects of “9” is Acker’s use of the all-star cast of voices. This is not the usual assembly of names to inject boxoffice appeal into an animated film. Each and every actor used (save for one sore thumb) is endowed with the sort of voice one needs to give life to animated characters. Christopher Plummer is not surprisingly, in excellent form as the authoritarian figure that demands adherence to his belief that survival can only mean keeping the lowest profile possible. This said, however, would paint a portrait of a character far too one-dimensional for an actor as great as Plummer to be wasted on and there is another aspect of #1 that we get subtle glimpses of so that his eventual transformation comes as one of those surprises we should have seen coming right from the very beginning. All the other actors acquit themselves superbly, but the one low-point is Jennifer Connelly’s weak voice work that borders on cliché. But no matter, Wood is a great, finely textured hero, Reilly a warm and fun presence and Glover, especially and predictably brilliant as a tortured artist.
Acker has a real gift for blending images that are stunning in their detail – in fact, almost awe-inspiring – and yet, that are as dark and bleak as all get out. The shattered ruins of a civilization that once was – lying dead under greenish clouds of some vaguely nuclear haze are powerful indeed. Similar to the strange feelings evoked by John Boorman in “Hope and Glory”, his live-action autobiographical portrait of England during World War II where, to a child, there was something oddly fun about the Blitz in a boys’ adventure manner – Acker manages to make this dead world a kind of cool playground. To the dolls, it’s as dangerous as it is fascinating. And this is exactly one of the things that stays with you after you see “9”. Acker allows you to fill the shoes of his title character and much of what you experience is from his perspective. Even George A. Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” had this going for it – especially in the main setting within the mall where the survivors create their own Heaven on an Earth that has become a living Hell. For the dolls in “9”, it’s especially evocative since they’ve never really known anything else and certainly for the title character, he is very much a child born into a world that is dizzyingly intoxicating.
The depiction of life before the apocalypse is seen mostly in strange flashbacks or film footage and yellowed newspaper clippings where Acker creates a Hitler-like global dictator referred to only as The Chancellor (Tom Kane), a foul despot who uses the scientist/inventor (whose corpse we see at the beginning of the film) to create a world of deadly machines that have a life and mind of their own. The scientist, duped into thinking his life’s work will be used for the good of mankind, suffers the slings and arrows of his own genius as he sees the machines used to destroy The Chancellor’s enemies and eventually, mankind itself.
This, of course, is where Acker parcels out the spiritual element of the picture. Though the cathedral is initially seen as a place of sanctuary, it soon becomes, like all symbols of organized religion, a place that represents authoritarian rule and not unlike the totalitarian evil that has destroyed the world. But what’s very interesting and extremely moving is how Acker depicts the notion of how many scientists – especially astrophysicists – have embraced the notion of a higher power. This is not God as some patriarchal old dude with a furry white beard, but something far more mind-boggling. It is the notion that science IS spiritual – that the very idea and essence of soul is so fully rooted in Creation itself. This is what eventually carries the picture to a conclusion that is tremendously moving.
“9” has a perfect running time. At 78 minutes it moves in mysterious ways. Though short in length, it’s a picture that has as many moments of breathing room as it does moments of utterly breathtaking, break-neck action. Contemporary audiences are so out of step with just how short many features were during the Golden Age of Cinema that it’s conceivable that some people might be taken aback by just how short it is. This, I feel, is their loss – getting one’s money’s worth at the movies has less to do with how much running time can be applied to a picture, but just how satisfying the ride actually is.
And make no mistake, “9” is a ride that is very much worth taking.
Like Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, Acker infuses his film with a Judeo-Christian ethic and finally, it is a sacrifice – the ultimate sacrifice, in fact – which opens the doors to a sense of rebirth. And in a world as dead and bleak as the one Acker fashions, mankind’s redemption is only attainable through rebirth.
For much of the film’s running time, Acker presents us with a perfect example of what’s often referred to as “A Terrible Beauty”, but ultimately, what he delivers is pure, unadulterated beauty. It’s not something we get enough of in movies today. Most importantly, it’s not something we get enough of in life. “9” admirably fills a void on both counts.