Shane Acker’s 2005 Academy Award-nominated animated short 9 was so impressive that it caught the eye of visual maestro Tim Burton, causing him to jump aboard as this feature film version’s producer alongside Timur Bekmambetov, who directed both the Russian Watch trilogy and the riotously absurd actioner Wanted. Given the popularity of the original short, there was hope that Acker’s feature length film might work as a lavishly dark antidote to the pleasantly colourful efforts from Pixar. While there is plenty to admire from a visual perspective – especially given the low budget – 9 sorely lacks focus and intrigue, and is a potent reminder that not all shorts, even ones as brilliant as Acker’s, will necessarily work well as a feature, even in spite of a lean, 79-minute runtime.
Where 9 succeeds is with the small seeds of narrative promise, though sadly it never capitalises upon them fully; The film opens with a brilliant scientist managing to bring nine ragdolls to life with the help of a strange talisman, but seemingly at the cost of his own life. The final ragdoll created, 9 (Elijah Wood), is born into a world without any concept of God or spirituality, while through our own objective view, we know that we are watching perhaps a more horrifying possibility, that God, or at least these ragdoll’s approximation of a God – their creator – is dead. 9 gradually meets up with the other ragdolls, such as 1 (Christopher Plummer), the elder of the group and the first ragdoll created by the scientist, and also 7 (Jennifer Connelly), the only female among the group and also a fierce survivor type, for they all share the same quest; to survive in a post-apocalyptic Earth where humanity has seemingly been wiped out, and sentient machine monsters stalk what remains of Earth, destroying any non-machine that they find.
There are some admittedly chilling moments throughout 9; a glimpse of a mother and what appears to be her child lying dead in a car is particularly memorable, but the film sadly never fully realises either its intriguing spiritual bent, or the length and breadth of the dystopia, the horrors of which are more reminiscent of the sentinels from The Matrix trilogy than being actually menacing in their own way.
The main problem evident early on, though, is that the nine main characters are largely indistinguishable from one another; the ragdolls aren’t written with enough personality, making it difficult to discern the supporting characters, such that you might not even realise that the likes of John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover and Martin Landau have lent their voices. It almost makes one wish that the ragdolls were colour-coded.
The dramatic motions are a tad stale, too, with the film’s piecemeal plot very basically involving the ragdolls mounting a rescue effort when one of their kind is kidnapped by one of the sentinels. So, why even bother seeing 9? The visuals are just splendid enough to compensate for the flaws, and considering the low $30m budget (compared to Pixar’s films, which errs dangerously close to $200m a pop), the rendering standard remains high even if there’s a lot of monochrome and not much variety to the palette. The low budget means the style is an economic one, but there is still an impressive attention-to-detail nonetheless, particularly in the ragdoll’s eyes
There are peaks and troughs of action throughout, and the chase sequences can be quite exciting, but Acker’s pedestrian direction, motionless during several chase portions, squanders much of the thrill of the chase. Furthermore, the film suffers thematically because everything unfolds so ineffectually from an emotional standpoint; we know that big, important things are occurring, but we are never asked to care about them, and although visual films can tell visual stories, there is an alarming lack of dialogue during portions that fail to actually deliver visual excitement or subtle intrigue in lieu.
Though there is a clever metaphysical rumination at the start of the third act, the film just doesn’t go far enough with the existential subtext that it is so desperately pining for, only reinforcing the film’s superficiality and unfortunate lack of depth. Given how 9 barely runs in at 70 minutes once the credits roll, few are going to expect densely-packed dialogues, but with such high-minded ideas intermittently sifting throughout, it is surprising that they are executed so procedurally. Acker is a talent to watch, and the film is a modest artistic success, but his narrative needs work.