Shane Acker‘s theatrical expansion of his animated short 9 is both the most exciting thing to happen in quite a while, and one of the bigger disappointments. Still, it’s only so disappointing because it should have been great, and it’s only very cool. It suffers from all the faults one might fear in a translation that grows from a short subject, and I suspect from a writer who really shouldn’t have been attached to the project.
The story follows 9, a hand-stitched automaton created from bits of metal and a suit of burlap, who suddenly finds himself alive in a strange room, in a post-apocalyptic world. He quickly meets others of his kind, and yes, he finds there are eight other… whatevers in the world. He also learns that they are not alone in the rubble, as a certain robotic beast is hunting them.
As you might expect, it all comes down to a cautionary tale about progress and technology, and things play out in rather an action-filled, and straight-forward way. There is chasing, there is much in the way of scary, hunting things, and there is a lot of running, falling, and mayhem. We also work our way around our nine little friends, and learn that they are all quite unique in outlook and ability, and eventually we learn why they are like this.
Unfortunately, while there is much great sauce here, there is precious little meat. The visuals are glorious and exciting, and moreover are clearly put together by someone with a talent we have not seen for quite some time. Shane Acker, hopefully of many films to come, works the layout and structure of what you’re seeing on screen to such a degree that it almost becomes unimportant that there be a story at all… but, only almost.
The story plays out, basically, in the simplest terms, and with an almost glaring avoidance of its own possibilities. The potential statements (and there are so many) are whittled down to the most uninteresting of truisms, when they are acknowledged at all, and everything good is cute, while everything bad has a frown built into its face, or lots of rotating pointy bits.
To be fair, it’s awfully hard to tell where the story lost focus. I can’t say that Acker’s own upgrade from his 11-minute short would have delved more into the depths this final version opens, but I have to wonder why it would open them otherwise. Credited with the screenplay is Pamela Pettler, who over the last twenty years has written the odd television episode here and there. She was part of the writing team on Corpse Bride and Monster House, but in each case she was working with at least two other writers, and to be quite honest, I wouldn’t shoot anyone’s career forward based on those wonders in any case. Leave it to Hollywood that she is now attached to four more projects, including Wee Free Men, which makes me decidedly nervous.
There are some nice moments of chase and dread, of filling with angst and moral outrage, but it all falls by the wayside and at the end never amounts to anything. As an overall effort, 9 ends up a wonderfully creative world filled with fun, adventure, and imagination… stuffed into a box of script contrivance and convenience, where all the color bleeds to gray. Whatever chaos and robotic deviltry there may be in 9, the story is ultimately about the human soul, what it might be, and as a result, what we are… except, it is not. Not at all, and that’s a fairly unforgivable failing.
All that said, the movie is nevertheless a pretty fun ride, and worth watching even if you turned the sound off. It is utterly impressive, not just in terms of what you see, but because of how what you see was crafted. Leave your critical eye at the door, and try not to think about what might have been, and I suspect you will enjoy it quite a bit. There is real greatness in here somewhere, but you have to find it yourself, and it is probably more work than it’s worth.
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