It must take guts to embark upon a film like 9, Shane Acker’s dark and thrilling feature-length version of his 2005 short film of the same name. Thick with paranoid dread and post-Apocalyptic atmosphere, 9 is a film with so many obvious antecedents—the original Terminator, the 1960 adaptation of The Time Machine, and nearly everything by Tim Burton (who here has a producer credit) come immediately to mind—that certain kinds of originality are conceded almost before the exposition is over. The fact that 9 still works so well as both a cinematic and emotional experience is a testament to its energy and heart.
Critics have been quick to point out the film’s parallels with WALL*E in particular, another CGI adventure featuring an innocent robot stranded in a harsh world with just his wits and a sense of hope, but such comparisons almost miss the point. The titular character is 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood, now making a career of playing wee Messiahs), a ragdoll with a body of rough burlap and hands and feet fashioned from wood and brass. His eyes are like a pair of camera lenses, and as he awakens at the film’s beginning he blinks with an audible mechanical action at the world around him—and what a world. London after the blitzkrieg could not compete for desolation and ruin.
9 soon realizes that the other ragdolls he begins to encounter—1 (Christopher Plummer), the leader of a band of survivors hiding out in a church; 5 (John C. Reilly), a timid but loyal member of the survivors; 7 (Jennifer Connelly), long left for dead by the other survivors, but returning as a sort of ragdoll Rambo—are more interested in surviving than plumbing the mysteries of their own existence or the reasons for the world’s apparent destruction. Not so with the inquisitive, persistent 9, who clashes with the protectionist 1: “You,” 1 spits at him during a confrontation, “always asking questions.”
The immediate threat to the ragdolls is The Beast, who is probably best described as a robot dog with a skull for a head. The Beast spends its time prowling the rubble and shells of burned-out cars, hunting the ragdolls. As an agent of the film’s real villain, The Machine, The Beast serves as a nice introduction to what will be an army of terrifying machines that scurry, and crawl, and flap across the low, gray skies with chilling mechanical focus. What’s at stake, naturally, is nothing less than the future of the planet.
There are details in 9 that absolutely cry out for metaphorical interpretation. The bombed-out church, for example, which serves as the survivors’ home, makes one wonder what Acker is trying to say about faith and mysteries and the role of beauty in a world prone to mechanical destruction. But the film resists much analysis and these details seem more a matter of visual flare or narrative convenience than anything else. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a church is just a church.
To some extent, this lack of attention to subtext is a weakness. 9 suggests a strong underlying fear of technology, or of what mankind does with technology. The villainous machines are cobbled together from available parts, which gives them a horrifyingly haphazard feel, but they are machines: gnashing metal and spinning blades designed for killing only; the people in the film, by comparison, are weak and organic and fragile. The ragdolls represent a combination of the two: Within 9’s body, which opens down the front via a large zipper, there is just a hollow cavity. An internal mechanism is hinted at but what makes him go is, for lack of a better word, soul (the film’s major flaw is its explanation of the ragdolls’ origins, simplistic nonsense that manages to offend the viewer and damage the integrity of the plot at the same time). There’s real tension here between machine and humanity, and there are real ideas about the need for a balance between scientific exploration and human emotion. But it all goes largely unexamined, and that feels like a missed opportunity.
The film’s ambivalence toward technology is so highly selective it can feel poorly thought through. Near the end, for example (and from a writing and filmmaking perspective, this moment is a masterful whirl of tension and calmness, beauty and horror, camaraderie and awkward incompatibility), the ragdolls celebrate an apparent victory over the machines by playing an old record of Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on a hand-cranked phonograph. In that context, the phonograph is quaint and charming, and Garland’s voice, crackling through from what seems like so long ago, is hopeful and impossibly lovely (and maybe a subtle homage to The Wizard of Oz, yet another film that 9 recalls). But technology is like history: fuzzy and inviting and romanticized from a distance of years. The phonograph was once as wondrous and fearsome as face transplants or iPhones are now—indeed, as menacing to same as, say, a mechanical dog with a death’s head. If Acker’s intention was to differentiate good technology from bad, he’s got quite a bit of work left to do.
The hallmark of 9 is its focus, which is as much a strength as a weakness. The CGI work, for example, is impressive and accomplished, but never intended to be showy. In this respect it has something many other CGI films don’t: modesty. Acker is smart enough to put the animation in the service of his vision. Likewise, 9 is unconcerned with besting those films that have walked the same thematic paths. The film has a story to tell and sticks to it, for better or worse. Mostly, it’s better.