9 (United States, 2009)September 07, 2009
Perhaps it says something about the nihilistic perspective of modern society, but the post-apocalyptic story is becoming a popular genre; not since the height of the Cold War have movies been so obsessed with the end of civilization. No longer restricted to art-house meditations and action/adventure sagas, this kind of tale has made its way into the animated realm, first with 2008's Pixar release, WALL-E, and now with the Tim Burton/Timur Bekmambetov co-production, 9. Although there are enough scares and thrills to tip the scales slightly onto the PG-13 side of the PG/PG-13 line, this is by no means "adult" animation - or at least it's not going to conjure up thoughts of Heavy Metal or Fritz the Cat. This is post-apocalyptic adventure as imagined for a teen crowd, and what it lacks in depth it makes up for in action. With a slight running time of 80 minutes, 9 doesn't contain an ounce of fat on its animated bones.
The Terminator-like backstory implicates a war between humans and their sentient machine creations with destroying the world. Humankind is dead, as are most of the machines, and a series of puppets-like rag dolls - the last work of one visionary scientist - have inherited what's left of the earth. Originally, there were nine of them, but their number has dwindled. Now, with the last of the group, Number 9 (voice of Elijah Wood) awakened, they are as complete as they ever will be. However, before 9 can be introduced to his fellows, he finds himself in dire straits. He is rescued by Number 2 (Martin Landau), but then 2 is carried off by a dangerous mechanical beast to its lair. 9 wants to rescue 2, but the suggestion is vetoed by Number 1 (Christopher Plummer). He goes anyway, accompanied by 5 (John C. Reilly) and 7 (Jennifer Connelly). What they discover and do on the journey results in the re-awakening of the great machine whose activation started the great war.
Outside of the nature and appearance of the Numbers, 9 doesn't offer much that's new or radical, but its familiar sights and motifs are represented in ways that are energetic and visually pleasing. The computer-generated animation is crisp and clear, often bordering on photo-realism, and the storyline moves. On several occasions during the proceedings, I found myself thinking that 9 would make an excellent high-end computer game - it has a similar feel and rhythm to some of the best on the market, and there are enough action sequences to keep a player's thumbs nimble. This may be one of the first occasions in which comparing a movie to a video game is not intended as an insult. Veteran gamers watching 9 will recognize the connection immediately. Those who don't play may simply see this as a fast-paced animated science fiction adventure.
The level of detail doesn't match what Pixar provided in WALL-E, but neither does it appear that corners were cut to reduce cost. There are some appropriately bleak blasted city scenes and the metallic antagonists are suitably menacing. The main characters are simply rendered but their human-like shapes and voices allow us to readily identify with them. It doesn't much matter that their faces are made out of burlap and they have zippers down their chests. Of course, the relative lack of human beings eliminates the hurdle of having to animate people - something that bedevils even the most accomplished animators. They never look quite real (as is the case in the few scenes during 9 when one appears.)
The director is Shane Acker, who is making his feature debut. 9 is an expansion of his 2005 Oscar-nominated animated short of the same name. With Burton and Bekmambetov (Wanted) on board, getting A-list voice actors was not a problem. Of all the major stars - Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, Martin Landau - only Christopher Plummer is immediately recognizable. The rest manage the critical component of effective anonymity, which can be important in an animated film lest the image of the actor overwhelm the character to which voice is being given.
Perhaps the most refreshing thing about 9 is that it's not in 3-D. That in and of itself is becoming a rarity in animation, where the rush is on to force everyone to wear the glasses. Of course, the dimming of light associated with circular polarization would have been a problem here, since many scenes in 9 are naturally gloomy.
9 is certainly no WALL-E, but its intentions are different. Like many action-oriented films, whether live-action or animated, this one doesn't take the time to develop the characters and their relationships are telegraphed through recognizable clichés. (The film might have been better off without the "romance" between 9 and 7.) But it excels in establishing a narrative-advancing breakneck pace that integrates exposition without bringing the action to a screeching halt, and represents a largely enjoyable 1 1/4 hours. Comparing this to the summer's biggest, most bloated movie about malevolent robots, 9 is about twice as enjoyable with half the length.
The original short film upon which 9 is based:
9 (United States, 2009)
Cast: (voices) Elijah Wood, Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover, Jennifer Connelly
Screenplay: Pamela Pettler, based on a story by Shane Acker
Music: Deborah Lurie
U.S. Distributor: Focus Features
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