“Your path takes us to catastrophe!”
Waking up in a post-apocalyptic city, a bizarre sackcloth being called simply 9 (and voiced by Elijah Wood) is stunned to discover more of his kind eking-out a dangerous existence amid the rubble and trying to avoid the violent and terrifying machines that appear to be hunting them down. When his new-found friend, 2 (the great Martin Landau), is captured by one of the rogue contraptions and dragged off to the machines' lair out across the wasteland, 9 must overcome the hostility and distrust of his fellow scavenging survivors and persuade them to mount a rescue attempt. What they discover when they cross this virtual no-man's land will have profound repercussions for them all and maybe, just maybe, aid them in providing a doomed humanity with one last chance for survival.
Adapted and screen-written (by Pamela Pettler) from his own Oscar-nominated animated short of the same name, Shane Acker's CG vision, 9, marries-up post-apocalyptic grunge with semi-cute burlap characters and thrusts manga-style industrial monsters at us in a tale of good versus evil and, ultimately, the redemption of mankind. Although visually arresting, this is not quite the feat of the imagination that you may initially be expecting, or hoping for. Basically, there is nothing new to be found here. The monstrous metallic heathens that rip their way across the wasteland of the city owe everything to the covers of Astounding Tales, the warped industrial terrors from the mind of H. G. Wells and James Cameron's Terminator universe, and even offer shades of Hayao Miyazaki, with a post-punk slant that would cosy-up nicely alongside Richard Stanley's Hardware. The role of small but courageous people undertaking the quest to defeat a vast, empirical aggressor is, in essence, Tolkien, as is the proverbial use of an apparently magical amulet that bestows a terrible power. And, of course, the notion that the new kid on the team, the one who is forced to learn some horrible truths very swiftly and the one through whose eyes we see it all, and who will ultimately come to save the day is seen in everything from Star Wars and Mad Max 2 to The Matrix and Avatar.
But does the fact that his film is built up out of these genre staples detract in any way from Acker's tale? And is his vision a purely derivative one?
Hell, no. On both counts
Considering that critics and forum-posters the world over have been raging along with the whole “seen the story a hundred times before” debate as regards to James Cameron's gargantuan budgeted Avatar, it really does appear that there is nothing new under the sun these days. Or, at least, splashed across the big, and not-so-big screens. Yet, as the youthful and eminently talented Acker proves, there is ample room for a little, but well-intentioned film like 9 to come along and, by turn, intrigue, terrify, mystify and dazzle us with sublime visual storytelling, and maybe even go on to produce a neo-fairytale-like metaphor for good triumphing over adversity and to reinforce the belief in plain old fashioned optimism. Disney forged a lifelong career and an undying legacy out of just such an ethos and, if anything, Acker's admittedly threadbare screenplay harkens back to such simplicity ... albeit with added shadows, threat and a desperately provocative sense of all-pervading doom to satisfy a more cynical audience.
Thus, 9, as visually ravishing and agreeably odd as it may be, is a case where style does actually win out over substance.
The film is like a rust-tinted fever-dream. Acker's narrative is fast, explosive and dynamic. He gets away with the necessary exposition by depicting it in a highly stylised, and actually quite dark couple of flashbacks that are as much about mood as they are scene-setting. Nothing is really explained in layman's terms, which is quite refreshing. Scientific mumbo-jumbo meets some sort of axle-greased hocus-pocus as New Age technology combines with esoterica to form a rebirth mythology for a parallel universe. It is crystal clear what producer and key inspiration for the original short film, Tim Burton, saw in Acker's vision. This is a metal-gothic catalyst that paints a world in which remnants of the familiar and the recognisable can be seen, but it is still inordinately alien, and in which anything can apparently happen. There is the fledgling analogy of the “outsider” having to prove his worth and find the hidden truths that a doomed scientist entrusted him with that recalls Edward Scissorhands. There is even a burlap character amongst the raggedy squad who has pencils for fingers and who illustrates his morbid visions with as much frenzy as Edward's furiously fast topiary. But, at its core, there is the Alice In Wonderland mood of gazing through a looking-glass into a world whose danger, madness and deceit can also be powerfully alluring that Burton totally subscribes to. Although he took a backseat, rather like Guillermo Del Toro did with The Orphanage and Peter Jackson did with District 9, his name attached to a project can't help but elicit a certain affinity with the audience even before they clap their eyes upon the finished production, yet, as with those two excellent examples, this is still the brainchild of someone else whom he has spotted as being uniquely visionary and deserving of a helping hand.
With a voice cast that, at first, seems quite inspired but, as the film plays out, actually appears to restrict much in the way of personality, the characters don't really come to life perhaps as much they ought to. Elijah Wood, strangely semi-reprising his most famous role from LOTR as the diminutive 9, who, like Frodo, comes to play such an important part in the plight of the downtrodden, barely manages to imbue his hessian puppet with any genuine vocal spark. Perhaps tellingly, he is mute for the first ten minutes or so. And I'm not sure exactly when it was that Christopher Plummer became so good at being sly and untrustworthy. Having embodied the stalwart British campaign hero of the Duke of Wellington in the weirdly wonderful Waterloo and the quintessential Sherlock Holmes in Bob Clark's excellent (and recently re-released, though sadly not on Blu-ray) Murder By Decree, he should be the go-to guy for playing aristocratic heroes, yet this has repeatedly not been the case. Here, as the authoritarian 1, the self-proclaimed leader of this cloth-knit gang, he lends his austere tones to a character that looks more like a hessian take on the typical alien “Grey” than anything else. But, as with all the others, the film does not seem to allow the actor to imbue what is, possibly, the most intriguing character amongst them with anything more than a rudimentary, sketched-in personality. Now, it is certainly true that we don't necessarily need any such poignant depth, given the atmosphere that the film is striving for, but this then negates the purpose of having such a top-flight vocal team on-board in the first place. Indeed, one definite complaint about the movie - as it appeared at the flicks and how it comes across on BD - is the lack of presence that the voices, themselves, actually have amongst the often infernally demonstrative soundscape. With most animated features that boast famous tonsils waggling about behind the scenes, you clearly know who they are back there providing the voices. Here, though, the dialogue is strangely muted, downplayed and often swamped by the gruelling sound-design, meaning that almost anybody could have provided the service and the end result wouldn't have been any different. It is only a minor caveat, but when you have such verbal luminaries as Crispin Glover, John C. Reilly and Alan Oppenheimer (who plays the scientist who created these ragdoll rebels) and the aforementioned Martin Landau and Christopher Plummer, you want to relish the sound of their words.
“We had such potential. Such promise. But we squandered our gifts. And so, 9, I am creating you. Our world is ending. Life must go on.”
But there can be no such complaints aimed at the visual appearance of the film, for the animation is truly astonishing. Lit through the clouds of a blighted world, populated by the stricken edifices of a collapsed civilisation, this is work of stark yet rapturous awe and a harsh, yet indisputable beauty. We've seen it done majestically in the last couple of years already, of course - on film with I Am Legend and in Pixar-perfect animation in WALL-E - and Acker's take on the wilderness of stone and steel left after the eradication of Man is no less effective, although 9's evocation is possibly much more stylised. There is a distinctly British feel to the wrecked city - London, perhaps - something of a blitzed-out metropolis that seems to hail from some alternate history, circa in-between the two World Wars. Towering spires jut upward in rigor-mortis into eerie smog-painted skies, and junked jalopies litter the frame. Calcified bodies moulder under their shroud of dust. Further out, we encounter trenches and dug-outs, half-buried tanks and earthen tunnels, like the final futile barrier of some blasted front-line. The theme is always industrial and this ties into a vague recollection of the big screen adaptation of Alan Moore's The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen ... in a way. This isn't really the future as we would expect to see it. It is possibly even set right now, long after the senseless war that we see in those horrific flash-backs has ended. But we aren't talking about some super Skynet-fashioned computer gaining sentience and assembling missiles and robots to polish off humanity. And the aggressor here is not the rogue Norad of Wargames gone proactive on a truly global scale. Nuts and bolts and fizzing crackles of electricity empowered with the soul of arrogant tyranny fuelled society's downfall - in a sort of Frankenstein meets Hitler kind of egotistical calamity - and even if the shapes and monstrosities that the Beast concocts look like something out of a 50's drive-in insectoid nightmare, they possess the design of the assembly line - a steam-punk army of annihilation that just happens to look a little more polished and sharp ... and deadly efficient.
Hordes of spider-bots speed out in all directions. A ghastly robotic snake with the most poignant and harrowing of disguises creeps insidiously after our heroes. A dragon-bird of gleaming steel bears down upon them. The vicious hybrid of prehistoric wolf and APC scavenges the debris with a bowel-loosening ferocity. And the big Beast, lumbering on giant pincered legs and glaring malevolently out of a single blood-red eye, is a titanic techno-tarantula designed to terrify. Given Acker's love of these little hessian characters, it actually seems quite merciless that he pits them against something so despicable and puts them through so much.
“I was right. You did send him out to die!”
Where the film really comes into its own is with the surprisingly brutal action sequences. There is a real hard edge to such set-pieces as the iron-clad pterodactyl assault on the cathedral and the commando-style rescue within the Beast's lair. The burlaps are smashed, hurled and pummelled every which way including loose, and the film's refusal to soft-soap such wildly choreographed skirmishes is to be commended. It should come as no surprise that Wanted director, Timur Bekmambetov, who acted here as a producer, whispered the secrets to some of his pulverising panache into Acker's ear. Make no mistake, the thematic darkness of the movie is something to look out for. Although my kids did not have a problem with any of the various abductions, soul-drainings and frequent running-battles, or any of the monstrous metal berserkers that stride, scuttle, soar and slam their way around the wasteland, I should point out that certain scenes are, indeed, pretty intense and quite frightening. The sense of jeopardy and pain is keenly felt. But this is exactly what makes 9 stand out from the crowd and should help it appeal to adults a bit more, as well. Oh, and what about the momentary respite when the muscle-sack, 5 (Reilly's ogreish, lumbering, two-tone Samurai doll), takes himself off on sentry duty and then, when no-one is looking, uses a magnet to, ahem, pleasure himself? Okay, he's using the magnet on his head, but look at the orgasmic fun it gives him. Look at his eyes. That's just naughty, that is.
So, with the rampaging Beast performing seek and capture missions through the ruins and, once it has caught its rag-doll prey, sucking the life-essence out of them in scenes that are quite chillingly intense, we have an acute sense of dread maintained throughout, and this offers a darkness that is a long, long way from the normally cuddly animation that comes along all too often. The battle-lines are clearly drawn and even if motivations and individual depth are slightly lacking, the imperative nature of such a hostile situation is never overlooked or watered-down and the resulting set-pieces are often genuinely tense and exciting.
“NO! You mustn't destroy it! They're trapped! Don't you see it? They're trapped inside! They're INSIDE!”
It is also, perhaps, inevitable that a post-punk semi-futuristic fable would find a place for some strenuous martial artistry somewhere along the way, and this is served up by the female doll, 7 (voiced by Jennifer Connelly), who kicks up a storm with a whirling blade and an adrenaline-fuelled dose of combative acrobatics whenever she is unleashed upon some metallic menace. Dressed like an cross-stitched ninja, she represents the spontaneity and bravado of this embroidered crew and is regarded as a bit of a loose canon. It is noteworthy, and to Acker's credit, that the skirmishing antics of a hessian doll do not provoke much unintentional laughter, for once 7 starts flipping and spinning about she, like the CG-invigorated Yoda of the Star Wars prequels, becomes someone who you can actually root for and become reasonably reliant upon. Quite where she learned these skills is still up for question, however.
With the original interpretation lasting only ten minutes and still managing to tell essentially the same tale very effectively, it is not without foundation that many critics have found the stitching in this feature-length adaptation a little stretched. But despite initial reservations about there just not being enough plot to carry it, this version learns its limitations as it goes along and just refuses to elaborate any more than is necessary. This is tight and action-packed, and if the finale feels rushed and unsatisfying it is possibly only because we want to see more of these crazy little guys and the world they inhabit - which is clearly the impetus that Shane Acker had after settling down to view his finalised short, realising, as many artists do, that he just didn't want to let go.
“Sometimes ... one must be sacrificed.”
To aid in the frenetic action of the story we get one of the top scores of the year, right up there with Marco Beltrami's Knowing, Michael Giacchino's Star Trek, Hans Zimmer's Sherlock Holmes (awesome, as I think my CD review makes abundantly clear) and Christopher Young's Drag Me To Hell, from Deborah Lurie, whose music gives momentum and heart to the adventure. Lurie, following on from the likes of the late, great Shirley Walker, is one of few female composers in a male dominated field who can really pull her weight and provide some devastatingly exciting orchestration. Only Debbie Wiseman (Flood, Lesbian Vampire Killers) and New Zealand's Victoria Kelly (Under The Mountain) are equally as commanding under fire. Rapid action music propels the swift melees, orchestral grandeur fills the parched, debris-strewn landscape and there is a genuinely emotional coda to her score as well. Courtesy to Tim Burton, no doubt, Danny Elfman was also on-board to provide some thematic ideas and his distinctive style is in evidence with a brief Batman-influenced fanfare here and there, but there can be little doubt that this remains Lurie's score, through and through.
“Sometimes, fear is the appropriate response.”
Yet for all of its visual invention and great juxtaposition of the whimsical with the intimidating, 9 lacks the necessary fulfilment of a story well-told. Whatever escapades these sack-cloth warriors engage in along the way, the journey feels only half-delivered. Come the finale, there is a definite possibility of disappointment. I know that the first time I saw the film - at the cinema - I felt let-down by the lack of a proper, box-ticking and cathartic resolution to it all. Of a bonafide tangible explanation. But, as I've tried to imply, this slightly filtered narrative actually gains strength with repeat viewing. What seemed unsatisfying before now feels weirdly correct within the less demanding parameters of a fantastical fable. Where the odyssey felt as though it was only about to get going once this particular 80-minute hurdle had been surmounted, the adventure now feels tighter, more deliberate and considerably more energetic. It becomes more vital and imperative once you realise that this really is all there can be to Acker's vision, and then you understand that a window opening out on to a broader canvas becomes utterly unnecessary. So here's hoping that he can now shrug off this burlap shroud and venture into more creative realms, for Shane Acker is a wonderful new light in the fantasy genre.
9 is terrific fun, folks. Exciting and visually sumptuous, but also delightfully dark and slightly disturbing which, in a densely packed and typically over-sweetened field, is certainly stimulating. Definitely recommended and a strong 7 out of 10 from me.