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Sunday, September 13, 2009


I wouldn't be surprised if some enterprising Intro to Theology teacher screened 9 for his charges, but I would be if it were shown to film students. The film is loaded with religious allegory, but despite evocative animation the story is routine adventure.

Directed by Shane Acker, based on a short film of his that is unseen by me, the film is co-produced by Tim Burton, and I remember when I first saw the trailer for 9 Burton's name popped into my head before I saw his name in the credits. It has his visual fingerprints all over it. I'm not sure of the reason for this--did Burton influence Acker, or was Burton drawn to it because it tickled his sensibilities--but in any event this film looks a lot like Burton films such as Edward Scissorhands and the Henry Selick-directed Nightmare Before Christmas.

9 concerns a time just after the expiration of the human race, which have been destroyed by machines that were created as their salvation. This, of course, strongly smacks of the Terminator films, and there's also quite a bit of The Lord of the Rings in the story, as a small band of individuals go on a quest to save their kind (Acker was an animator for The Return of the King). Where Acker shows some originality is the characters themselves: they are dolls, about a foot high, made of burlap, with binocular lenses for eyes.

These dolls were created by the scientist who also invented the machine that destroys humanity. He makes nine of them, each marked by a numeral. The story begins when the last, 9, is created, and he stumbles into being. Soon he meets others of his kind, namely 2, an elderly inventor. When 2 is grabbed by a spidery robot and taken to a distant structure, 9 wants to save him, but the leader of the group, 1 (natch) balks. 1 is a representative of fundamentalism--when 9 asks why "the Beast" (surely a reference to Satan) is after them, 1 scoffs and says that these questions are pointless. 1 is at odds with the scientific 2, and is interested only in preservation, preferring to hide away and leave 2 to his fate.

9 influences 5, who is sort of the Samwise of the group, to help him, and they meet up with 7, the only female and a warrior who wears a bird skull as a helmet. But while trying to rescue 2, 9 awakens the dormant mother machine, and there's hell to pay.

Some of this is engaging, but I was gripped with a sense of impatience almost immediately, as if I've seen this all before. We're all familiar with the look of post-apocalypse--the perpetually dusky skies, the ruined buildings, the detritus of human existence such as old cars, newspapers, and broken doll heads. And though the film is very short and gets into the action right away, the core of the action is so simplistic--characters are attacked, some get taken, remaining characters go to the rescue--that a metronomic quality of the film overwhelms the theme.

What is most interesting about 9 is that theme, which is one of the most basic to humanity though it is relatively unexplored in films that play in multiplexes: who created us, and why are we here? The dolls of 9 struggle with this in different ways, with 1 choosing not to even think about, to 7 choosing to fight, to 9 questioning. With the character 6 Acker even references deeper meaning, with the character being fashioned out of what looks like mattress ticking that resembles the rags worn by those in concentration camps during World War II.

But all of that goes by the wayside when the mechanisms of the plot muck up the works. I give screenwriter Pamela Pettler a perverse sort of credit, because I wouldn't be able to type lines of dialogue such as, "We've got to go after them" (I believe this is said more than once) or "I started this, and I'm going to finish it." I'm not even sure small children would enjoy this film, as it is almost unrelievedly grim, and has an ending that is spiritually uplifting (it made me think of the end of Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves) but won't send kids out of the theater looking to buy action figures.

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