In most post-apocalyptic movies, we bring destruction on ourselves with our advanced science, and there's a cautionary message about trusting technology. But the lyrical 9 may be the first film that shows good machines fighting evil ones, after we're dead.
Oh, and there are definitely spoilers in this review, although I try to avoid giving away any major twists.
As you probably know, 9 is based on a short film by writer/director Shane Acker, which garnered an Oscar nomination a few years ago. The film impressed both Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted) and Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands) so much, they both agreed to serve as producers and get it made into a full-length feature. The full-length version contains the same beautiful, unsettling animation as the short film, but fleshes out the characters and the backstory of the world — and the crucial question is whether you'll find the fleshed-out, longer version as intense and fascinating as the short film.
In 9, humans have built super-intelligent war machines, which have gone on to create other machines in their own image and then risen up to destroy us. There's never any doubt that — as Flight Of The Conchords would say — the humans are dead. So instead, our protagonists are also machines, but they're cute, cuddly machines, with skins of sackcloth and cartoony eyes that are constantly refracting their shutters in a lovable fashion. But the "ragdolls" have their own internal power struggle, between the hegemonic, conservative 1 (Christopher Plummer) and the rebellious, inquisitive 9 (Elijah Wood). 1 wants to keep the ragdolls safe, cowering in hiding, while 9 wants to go out and find the truth about their existence.
As I said, this is an unusual post-apocalyptic narrative in that we see two groups of machines fighting each other over the ashes of humanity. We slowly learn more about how the human race died, and why the bad machines are so furious. The film makes a stab at explaining the difference between good and bad technology — it has to do with how we use it, but also what parts of ourselves we put into creating it — and we see how the machines rose up and destroyed us. The scenes of rubble and devastation, with the last remnants of humanity dying off as the first ragdolls flee, are among the film's most affecting and disturbing.
The contrast between the two types of machine is really at the heart of 9 — the killer bots are all dark metal and sharp edges, glowing red eyes and bestial energy. The ragdolls, meanwhile, are meant to have a lot of engaging personality. They're definitely cute, and their concern for each other and their curiosity about the world contrasts sharply with the callousness of the slaughterbots. And the film makes sure we learn each ragdoll's unique personality early on. As Timur Bekmambetov said in our exclusive interview, each ragdoll represents an archetype, including the hero, the friend, the dictator, the crazy person, and... oh yeah, the girl. (Jennifer Connelly, representin' for the ladies.)
Sadly, the ragdolls and their "personalities" are really the main area where the movie falls the flattest, and it's almost a fatal flaw. The ragdolls — including our hero, 9 — feel so one-note that they become boring as characters. Take the central conflict between the rebellious 9 and the autocratic 1 — it feels like we see variations on the same scene a few times, but nothing interesting ever happens. We hear 1 say almost exactly the same line, "This folly will lead to no good," or words to that effect, over and over again. And then 1 narrows his little lenses in a grimace, and stalks around, while 9 spouts vague phrases about wanting to understand stuff. These two are the only ragdolls who are graced with anything even remotely approaching real personalities, and they come across like they're reading off the cliffs-notes versions of cue cards.
Where the ragdolls do shine is in their occasional moments of actual playfulness, but these are few and far between, and mostly fall towards the end of the film. There's a great bit where 8, the "big lug" who follows 1's orders unquestioningly, starts putting a magnet near his head and getting high off it. His eyes flicker and he gets this goofy grin on his face, and his enjoyment is infectious — everyone in the theater started laughing at that part. There's also a weird-but-great interlude with a record player where the ragdolls celebrate their victory (wrongly, it turns out).
Eventually we do find out the ragdolls' origins, and the movie even sort of makes a stab at explaining why each ragdoll only seems to have one aspect of a complete personality — I won't give it away, but this Washington Post review gives away the secret early on.
Honestly, I went into 9 expecting to fall in love with the film — the clips and art I'd seen had wowed me, and it seemed bracingly original. But even with a running time of 79 minutes, the film felt draggy and uninvolving. There are two different sequences where ragdolls run away from an explosion and somehow outrun it. There are two different bits where you think one of the ragdolls is dead, but then his lenses suddenly jerk to life. The film's central MacGuffin felt oddly random, and the plot depends on the characters being total idiots, until they're suddenly invincible. And the ending is both a big treacly and totally unsatisfying.
On the other hand, the film is always gorgeous — the lush animation is really its strong suit, and seeing the ragdolls on the big screen, you can really appreciate the detail that goes into them. Their stitchwork actually moves in fascinating ways as they move and talk. And there's a fascination and joy to watching them lope around the ruined landscape and dodge blades and flames — given how fragile and flammable they always seem to be. 9 is really worth seeing just for the visuals and its gothic, grotesque aesthetic of machines made in the image of animals, fighting machines made in our image.
Shane Acker has an amazing imagination and a great eye — and if he can just come up with a compelling story next time, he'll be our hero.