9 (2009)

Directed by Shane Acker


9 comes in at only 79 minutes.  It’s a quick movie that rushes through all the familiar beats of a slightly longer movie, and because of that the whole thing feels unnecessarily thin.  We meet 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood), a rag doll in a post-apocalyptic world, in one moment, minutes later he is hiding for his life from a mechanical pitbull skeleton, and a minute later he is brought to a sanctuary where other similarly-constructed rag dolls explain to him what happened to the world around them.

When 9 goes out with 5 (John C. Reilly) to save 2, he mistakenly awakens a beast, a large machine that might as well be the incarnation of all evil, and the rest of the story concerns their effort to combat this beast.

There is very little to say about the plot of this movie.  It’s mostly predictable, which I’d say is fine if you buy into the world and the characters, but I didn’t.  The main problem was that we don’t get to know these characters hardly at all.  And part of that is because we meet 9 the moment he is effectively born.  But there’s no playfulness in his interaction with the world which you might expect.  Part of that is because this is a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but I would think that this wasteland wouldn’t be as horrifying to 9 as it is to us.  He’s not human, so why wouldn’t he just accept this as normal?  Later we will learn that 9 and the other 8 rag dolls are fragments (read: horcruxes) of the soul of a scientist who accidentally created the mechanical monsters which destroyed all human civilization and which now haunt the rag dolls.

This movie doesn’t try to be funny, except for a few isolated incidents, but it certainly strives to be full of action and adventure.  Under all of that, though, is an intended feeling of melancholy because the world is dead and dying, and the rag dolls show no discernible feelings of joy or affection, other than, again, a few isolated incidents.

They are led by a sort of preacher, one defined by fear (even in his words), and who clearly suffers from a bit of a power trip.  He’s a monarch, in essence, of a withering community of rag dolls.

The lack of adequate set up made the characters all feel paper thin.  We never have time to identify with 9, and his fear, while ordinarily understandable given the circumstances, instead feels false, when the first mechanical monster attacks.  The whole thing feels so much like a concerted effort to get the story in motion, like the movie went into production without a completed script and instead just the general plot outline.

And then you have to buy in for the rest of the story to work.  Because suddenly 9 pleads with the community’s leader to let him save 2, the one who was taken prisoner by the mechanical pitbull thingy.  And on one hand, it should be easy to understand 9’s desire to save 2.  It’s common decency, 2 showed him some signs of frienship, and hell, the story needs to go somewhere.

But none of that worked for me.  If 9 was as scared of the monster as he seemed to be in that inciting incident, then why would he suddenly be so courageous afterwards?  If anything, his fear should have defined him and been the thing he had to overcome in the end.  So his change felt forced and implausible.  Since this is where the story was going to go anyways, I think 9 should have taken a more active role in the fight against the mechanical dog skeleton.  Maybe he’s almost reckless due to his extreme courage, and while he fails to save his new friend, it would make his decision to save him later on much more believable.

Or you could simply add another scene in which we see just how relieved 9 is to find someone else like him.  Up until that point he might think he’s completely and utterly alone.  So perhaps you could add one scene, or a montage of some sort, and have it cover a lot of time, just to show how desperate 9 is and how thankful he will be to find another person like him.  Then, when 2 is taken by the monster, we would understand 9’s desperation to save him.

Anyways, act 1, in my mind, was the worst part of the film, which is quite incredible.  Usually if act 1 sucks, acts 2 and 3 will as well.  But here, while I found the resolution as paper thin as the start of the film, the middle of it is somewhat entertaining.  The action is entertaining enough, and I can see why this would make a great short film if you picked the right moments to cover (9 is based on a 10 or so minute short film from 2005).

But ultimately this whole film feels underwhelming, like a copy of any other number of animation adventure films.  The only unique aspect of 9 is its setting, which is the only reason I watched it.  It takes place in a wasteland, like one you’d see in Fallout, the video game, with an environment that feels Steampunk-ish.  The end of the world, it seems, arrived sometime around 1920, based on the remains of the cars they come across.  I’d guess that this time period was picked because it offers a greater feeling of dilapidation.  The remains of an automobile feel even older simply because the automobile itself is old.  This time period also explains the look of the rag dolls, which look like dolls you would find scattered among the remains of the Titanic, at the bottom of the ocean.

And maybe this time period is meant to make you think of the industrial revolution, with the rise of machinery helping overhaul how we live our lives.  There might be a message here, about the machines bringing about our downfall, but considering this was made decades after this moment in time and the fact that this message is almost cliche by now in movies (Terminator), it doesn’t add all that much to the conversation.  This setting just allows the mechanical monsters to look appropriately monstrous, with their sharp edges, red beams and general rustiness.  You know that if the story took place today, in 2017, the monsters would look more like Wall-E and thus less monstrous.

So this movie has some charm, and certainly some imagination.  It feels like a movie you would make based on a dream, or a painting you saw.  It’s steeped in a single, dominant image of this world, but then the story is predictable and not very hard-hitting, considering the story sets this up to seem darker than most animated movies.  When the credits roll and the rain falls (for some reason), this story feels like a copy of the template you’ve seen in every other adventure movie.  It just pretends to be different.

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