Shane Acker’s 9 is best viewed as a lesson in the perils of great expectations. For my part, I first saw the thoroughly engrossing trailer back in February alongside Henry Selick’s Coraline (a film I’ll certainly have to review if I keep calling back to it), and got a vibe not unlike that of Kevin Munroe’s 2007 take on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – a highly stylized and potentially entertaining (if slightly generic) piece of animation.
And what happened next? I saw it again. And again. And the anticipation built, and the questions flowed. What is their mission? Who is 9, and how will he protect the future? How do you fight a robot with a pair of scissors? What’s more, I became increasingly enamored of its score, courtesy of Coheed and Cambria, and came to see it as a possibility for something magnificent at the end of the summer movie season – an elaborate and magical new world to explore, and possibly the next great animated film of the year.
The film tells the tale of a post-apocalyptic world in which all of humanity has been wiped out by machines, and the sole survivors are…well, basically machines. What begins as what Ben Croshaw might refer to as “science so soft you could spread it on a croissant” slowly reveals itself as more or less a work of fantasy. The nine “stitchpunk” dolls are equal parts mechanical and spiritual, imbued with clockwork hearts and “the spark of life”. They are hunted by other machines, each more grotesque and animalistic than the last, for no clear purpose.
And I had no problem accepting any of that. The film’s problems are not of setup, but of coherence. 1 (Christopher Plummer) is the stitchpunks’ oldest member and self-appointed leader, who insists that they stay hidden and wait for the machines to sleep. 9 (Elijah Wood), on the other hand, insists on getting into the fight. This ideological split is central to the film’s plot, with stitchpunks on either side. The film’s overall intent seems to be to extol the virtues of bravery and selflessness, but through the course of 9’s antics, it inadvertently makes the opposite point.
When 2 (Martin Landau) is dragged away into the “emptiness” by one of the machines, 9 insists on going after him (over 1’s objections). He tracks him to a factory and inadvertently awakens a terrible machine intent on destroying them all. However, this machine suffers the notable disadvantage of being tethered to a wall and only capable of manufacturing killbots from whatever scraps are lying on the factory floor, but despite the relative insignificance of this setback, 9 manages to make it worse at every turn. In the end, nearly all of the misfortune that befalls the stitchpunks is due to 9’s continuing recklessness (and his subsequent attempts to rectify his mistakes). By the end, I was left wondering if they would have been better off if listening to 1 and staying hidden, or indeed, if 9 had simply been dragged off by the machines in the first place.
In the end, this is a film that just tries to do too much, and skimps in all the wrong places. It forges a team of diegetically archetypal characters and barely fleshes any of them out. It creates a rich and breathtaking world of terrifying machines and neuters them with illogic and incoherence. It takes a number of beautifully choreographed action sequences and attempts to weave them into an utterly nonsensical story. And (minor spoiler) all it succeeds in creating is yet another morality tale about the perils of filling your evil lair from floor to ceiling with explosives.
By the end, neither the audience, nor the stitchpunks themselves seem entirely sure what they’ve accomplished (apart from getting several of their number killed), but they’re sure of one thing, as indicated by the film’s horrendous final exchange:
“What happens now?”
“This world is ours now. It’s what we make of it.”
After all its missteps, 9‘s final moment is imbued with far more bitter irony than the film would like… Instead of an inspiring message of hope amid adversity, it feels more like the gleeful nihilism of the final scene in Burn After Reading*:
“What’d we learn, Palmer?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“I guess we learned not to do it again.”
“F*cked if I know what we did…”
FilmWonk rating: 2.5 out of 10
*Clip here (NSFW, and major spoilers for Burn After Reading).