From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Two Views of 9 Don’t Add Up to a 10

9, Shane Acker’s short-film-made-good about a tribe of dolls trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic landscape, hit theatres this week. Much has been made of the movie’s design, featuring creatures made of shapeless burlap dolls studded with just enough accoutrements to be interesting. The movie follows the same form: visually engaging, but formless and ultimately without much spine.

The movie begins as 9 wakes up in the workshop where his maker has perished. He explores the outside world, finding more of his kind, as well as sentient machines that seem bent on destroying the brave little plushies. The nine remaining dolls must work together to stop the rise of a machine named The Machine. (Yup. The Machine. Get used to it; this movie has large leaps of imagination that come to a stuttering halt at random intervals.)

Of course, the only reason The Machine is even active is because our little hero, 9, plugged it in amid a chorus of others shouting at him not to. And this moment is where the movie starts to collapse like a bad soufflé.

Granted, it’s an archetypal story, in that an innocent and headstrong hero gathers various disparate people to him in support of a great cause. It’s also archetypal in that the plot functions mainly because said hero makes the same mistakes repeatedly. Hint to movie characters the world over: if your chosen leader is constantly apologizing for having let yet another one of you suffer a horrible death in an avoidable mishap, maybe vote for another leader. Just a thought.

In fact, the movie reads less like a film and more like a video game, where the POV character must do something stupid-yet-necessary in order to set up the gameplay, and then fight a series of enemies, pester other characters or return to home screen for more information, and build up enough Knowledge and Agility points to face off with the Big Boss at movie’s end. It’s in the last act that the movie suffers the most from video-game syndrome; after a climax that makes little sense, the narrative comes to a stop without really ending, when a strong finish might have saved the otherwise predicable and sometimes tedious eighty minutes.

The only things that keep 9 from feeling like an hour-long advertisement are the character touches of dark whimsy that, unsurprisingly, have Tim Burton stamped all over them. From the signature black-and-white stripes on the movie’s most eccentric character to the medic’s kit that contains a needle, thread, and buttons, the small details help to keep the characters just lively enough to follow. Many of the makeshift supplies that the plushies round up are ingenious, though they too fall prey to plot-itis – most laughably, 9 manages to put together a torch with a tiny light bulb, and though he is repeatedly beaten to within an inch of his life as the staff goes flying, the light bulb doesn’t so much as snap a filament.

The design is appropriately grim, and the cinematography has all the requisite swoops and dips, but it’s simply not enough to sustain the story for anywhere close to the 80-minute run time. The movie, like its characters, is just a little too threadbare.

9 rates a 6 out 10.

genevieveGenevieve Valentine is a writer in New York; her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Strange Horizons, Farrago’s Wainscot, Diet Soap, Journal of Mythic Arts, and Fantasy. Her appetite for bad movies is insatiable, a tragedy she tracks on her blog. She is currently working on a formula to evaluate the awfulness of any given film, a scale that will be measured in Julians.

Logan Masterson writes:

I’ll admit it: the previews for this post-Utopian faerie tale had me intrigued. The heavy industrial guitar riff accompanied a cadre of steampunk Raggedy Anns and Andys striving to survive in a world out of scale and out of time caught my eye.

The opening sequence, which I like to call “Shades of Coraline”, wherein a deceased scientist tells us everything we need to know about the dark future setting in which the action takes place, is clearly something we’ve seen before. In fact, all of the sequences turn out that way. Mind you, we’ve seen them with x-box gameplay or anime vibrancy as opposed to the grimy sack cloth automatons of 9, but we’ve seen them nonetheless. It is in this way that the pattern is established.

Every frame of this film is gorgeous, don’t get me wrong. Director Shane Acker and cohorts Burton and Bekmambetov put all their might into the visuals, of which every single animator, creative supervisor and geek-of-the-line involved should be proud. As for all the other vitals of modern film-making, the setup opens many doors into a dingy mechanist future devoid of humanity but not quite without life. Unfortunately, screenwriter Pamela Pettler offers only hackneyed themes, trite dialogue, reel-worn devices and flat characters to fill this amazing world.

Our title character, like the rest of his kind, is an eerie blend of cuddly doll and clockwork. He is also rather stupid, and a bit Skywalkeresque in his unyielding whininess. As the latest, and most advanced of his kind, 9 is the key to restoring life after the scientist’s earlier creation, “the machine” turns against man and gasses everything organic out of existence. In a badly botched effort to save one of his kind from a menacing hunter, 9 stupidly awakens the machine by handing over the “talisman”, key to the reemergence of life on Earth.

As an aside, I once owned a statue, constructed of found materials, called Fluffy, The Apocalypse House Cat. Fluffy had a cat skull with glowing red eyes, a copper ribcage, and pneumatic legs ending in claws of shiny stainless. I never imagined Fluffy would be a movie star, but indeed, just this kind of mechanized zombie kitty was left active when the machine (one supposes) entered sleep mode. The similarity between my Fluffy and 9’s hunter was indeed the eeriest, creepiest part of the movie.

In any case, action ensues. Lots of action. I found myself torn between enjoying the terrific textures and environments and reciting the litany of places I’d seen them before in video games. In fact, I was surprised that Jennifer Connelly’s 7 didn’t have the same figure as Lara Croft.

The influences in the movie are wider than that, however, including Jedi-like jumping, Ninja Scroll-inspired combat and an iron-girdered mix of Tolkien’s Shelob and Sauron, with spider body and single glowing mechanistic eye.

Speaking of eyes, the characters’ goggly lens-housings are kind of neat, and the inclusion of scissor lines drawn in Sharpie for brows makes the canned emotions fairly visible after all. The dialogue is tiresome anyway.

In the end, where an exciting option existed, we get instead just what we’re expected to expect. We learn that the scientist used his arcane science to link the mysterious dolls to the “talisman”, and that at least one of them is driven to challenge the machine’s iron rule. The closing scenes manage to cleanly reconnect the film’s opening, but not much else. At least three interesting endings have come to mind since the credits rolled, so why the hackneyed post-Utopian closure?

Perhaps because it’s PG13. Younger kids will have Fluffy nightmares for weeks. Older viewers will be bored to tears by a dialogue and plot as lifeless as the nine Archimedian simulacra.

That hot guitar lick from the trailer? Nope.

9 gets a 3 out of 10.

loganLogan L. Masterson, Missourian by birth and Tennessean by choice, is a writer, actor, storyteller, artist, geek & new world man. His writing to date includes an examiner column covering Nashville’s active theatre community and several published poems in such collections as In Our Own Words: A Generation Defining Itself. In addition to the writing of poems, songs and fiction, Logan enjoys roleplaying games, playing guitar and his five rescued dogs. His blog can be found here.