There are very few visionaries left in Hollywood, with even fewer arriving every day - and with good reason. It's not easy pitching your quirky, esoteric product to a group of suits solely interested in the bottom line. Today's business model is about money, not the mind's eye. Not matter how artistically pleasing or aesthetically sound, you just can't stay completely true to your muse and not face some strong commercial (and career) backlash. That's why Shane Acker's story is so intriguing. After an Oscar nomination highlighted his beautiful, baroque animation approach, filmmakers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov championed his jump to feature films. The result is 9, a stunning, if narratively stunted exercise in optical bliss and plotting hit or miss that could have been better if it wasn't so basic.
As one of nine living burlap puppets in a desolate, post-War environment, our title hero hooks up with the rest of his reanimated brethren: 1, a despotic leader; 2, a kindly sage, 3 and 4, twins who work in an information archive; 5 whose one eyed façade hints at the horrors in this frightening new domain; 6, who sees prophecy in the images he draws; 7, a female fighter with more nerve than other of her kind, and 8, a lumbering bodyguard to 1's stern leadership. Together, they must figure out what happened to the human population while stopping a massive factory-sized machine from creating destructive devices bent on bringing about their own demise. Eventually, 9 uncovers a secret about why he's alive, and the power that such a status holds in bringing humanity back from the brink of utter extinction.
9 is the kind of movie that breaks your heart. It shows so much promise, but then wastes it on the same old fuddy duddy future shock storyline. After all, how many times do we have to sit through a "man vs. machines" parable where our arrogance and technological drive leads to our eventual undoing. Sure, director Shane Acker dresses it all up in World War I/II paraphernalia, the Nazi/Fascist overtones carried throughout with sledgehammer like subtlety. True, the tone is not child friendly, but geared more toward the Goth guy/gal and geek mentality. And yes, the voice work is absolutely amazing, everyone from Elijah Wood (as 9) to Crispin Glover (6), John C. Reilly (5), and Jennifer Connelly (7) spot-on in their delivery and demeanor.
But that doesn't make the mechanical monster mash any newer or more novel. 9 constantly reminds the audience of The Matrix (especially in the look of its villains), The Terminator (in it’s A.I. gone gonzo themes), and numerous other examples of the speculative type. Along with an equally schizophrenic spiritual message - more on that in a moment - we are stuck following formulas that would barely work at all if not for Ackers amazing artistry. Indeed, the one thing that saves this proposed CG epic is the jaw-dropping production and character design. Whenever the story starts to lag, whenever the references become too recognizable or obvious, Acker delivers a robot or wide reaction shot that will absolutely floor you. He crafts vistas that take your breath away while populating them with particulars of equal optical excellence. Like the best kind of magician, 9 misdirects you from the misguided man behind the curtain to visual splendor that steals the show.
Still, we are stuck with narrative facets that don't feel right. The whole "soul" situation makes little or no sense, the ability to trap such an enigmatic ideal in a tiny doll appearing counterproductive to the rest of the story's set-up. In fact, it feels like a cheat, a way of showing audiences that, in the end, the human race will be saved. It doesn't help that each of our nine leads are locked into caricaturist confines - champion, coward, iron fisted ruler, deliberate dreamer - making their path to the planet's repopulation sketchy at best. And Acker never really explains his sci-fi rules here, something that is imperative in making this material work. Clearly, he was busier with the nuts and bolts of the film's look than in trying to make everything in his wistful wasteland work in a literarily sound way.
And yet 9 defies you not to be moved by its visual acumen. Acker is clearly a genius in combining ideas, using a clever combination of the Victorian and the high tech, the junkyard and the completely foreign to forge a unique and memorable ideal. Sure, his puppets are nothing more than your standard sell-through figurines, but the rest of this rotting world has a perverse polish all its own. The villains here are undeniably evil in their cobbled together terror tenets. While the story never knocks us out, the action sequences and attention to detail certainly do. By the end, when we've wandered over from battles to matters of belief, the contrasts become more obvious. We need the bad to shore up the good. Without it, the treacle takes over, and the result is something that never quite feels new, even with all the up-to-date aspects of its approach up on the screen for all to see.
With an inferred demographic who will find this frequently flying way over their grumbling gradeschooler heads, it's hard to see 9 becoming anything other than an obvious cult classic. Those who adore it will excuse the lack of narrative nuance, while others in the cinematic sect will worship individual elements like they are sure signs from God himself. One thing is for certain - Shane Acker has a seemingly boundless imagination that can salvage even the most simplistic, standardized sci-fi plot. 9 could have been a true animation masterpiece, the kind that rarely come along outside of a place called Pixar. Instead, it wastes a lot of creative energy on a concept that's been before - and frankly, outside of the CG eye candy involved, better.