Directed by Shane Acker
Not unlike its main characters — a group of voodoo doll-like homemade robots with celebrity voices crafted from burlap sacks and electronic scraps by a brilliant scientist just as another of his inventions destroyed humanity — 9 is an odd hybrid, its main components consisting of recent action adventures, medieval and early modern architectural styles and 20th century historical allusions. With Tim Burton on board as producer, director Shane Acker adapted his eponymous student short into this feature-length 9, though the result often feels like a drawn-out short — not unlike another Burton-backed visual bonanza, The Nightmare Before Christmas, one of whose creepier creatures has a cameo in 9. Beyond its routine narrative arc, un-engaging characters — you'll often wish Acker had kept his dolls voiceless, as they were in his short film — and absurd plot twists, 9 does boast a rich (or perhaps confusedly eclectic) set of thematic and visual motifs.
The film's lush CGI environment evokes pre-war England or Germany, with dense urban neighborhoods of picturesque apartment buildings, skylines still dominated by churches, and similarly imposing factories looming from the city outskirts. This tripartite structure organizes much of the film's themes between the humanities, religion and economics; or perhaps between small-scale production, medieval feudalism and modern capitalism; or maybe even between secularism, devotion to the church and devotion to the free market. Waking up as the film opens, the last of the dead scientist's creations, 9 (Elijah Wood), discovers these three realms in quick succession. He's saved from an evil robot-dog creature by the group hiding in the church, whose leader 1 (Christopher Plummer) is a cruel old coward accessorized with papal hat and staff. Cast out by the tyrannical technophobe, 5 (John C. Reilly) and 9 set out towards the factory (which looks suspiciously like a gothic cathedral) to confront the evil forces therein. They're helped in this endeavor by rogue ninja-doll 7 (Jennifer Connelly), and two numberless, speechless twins, who live in the library and use their flickering eyes as projectors to get us, and 9, up to date.
Pre-destruction, we learn, this nameless nation was a prosperous land of comrades and workers — so, Russia, maybe. The inventor who created our protagonists had devised a new kind of self-conscious machine that could operate independently of humans, but when the technology was appropriated by the military the thing created a robot army and killed all humans — like the Manhattan Project, or Henry Ford and American auto culture, maybe. 9 has a hard time sorting out its allegorical bits and pieces, which alternately have it resembling a technophobe's nightmare not unlike The Matrix or Terminator, and in other places smacks of environmental apocalypse, as in WALL-E. The fact that our hero is voiced by Elijah Wood and battles a malevolent giant red orb (while Plummer's 1 proves almost as capable with a staff as Ian McKellen) regularly evokes The Lord of the Rings, and the big baddie's glowing, mecha-crustacean design harkens back to Orson Welles's Unicron in the original Transformers movie.
As in too many computer-animated films, the technical artistry of the visual effects teams and sound designers behind 9 vastly outstrips the quality of the writing. The stunning bombed-out landscape, its dazzling architecture, steampunk creatures and expertly textured sounds are far more interesting than the story that guides us through them. This thin plot occasionally seems to advocate rationalism over religion, artisan production over capitalist factories and pacifism over militarism. Weirdly, then, it ends by regressing to a world of alchemy and pagan mysticism, with a closing burial scene in which (spoiler, sort of) robot souls ascend to heaven, spark a life-giving rainstorm and bless the improbable nuclear family of 9, 7 and the speechless twins. The alternate reality in which 9 is set demands further exploration, but we can only hope that by the time the sequel comes out (October 10, 2010, surely) Acker and screenwriter Pamela Pettler will have pieced together an adventure as narratively compelling as it is technically beautiful.
Opens September 9