9: The Future of Humanity Rests With a Burlap Doll
When your ad campaign touts the man at the helm as a “visionary director,” the visuals better hit a gargantuan home run. Luckily for Shane Acker, the look of the film is haunting, detail-oriented, and the action sequences are among the most exciting and memorable of the year. 9 (not to be confused with District 9, this August’s alien film, or Nine, the upcoming musical) is a post-apocalyptic roller-coaster ride with fascinating character design and an intriguing set-up that unfortunately never fully lives up to the expectation. While the director certainly has a vision, it’s an ear for dialogue that he needs to develop.
9 begins with a man infusing life into a small creature made of wood, burlap, and binocular-like eyeballs. The number 9 is etched onto his back. When 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood) awakens, he finds the man dead and the world destroyed, turned into a dusty wasteland of ruined buildings and streets ravaged by a war of some sort. He explores, only to encounter another creature like himself, labeled with the number 2 (voiced by Martin Landau). He begins to learn what happened to the world, and where others like him reside, but when 2 is taken by a huge cat-like robot, 9 is forced into the conflict between the machines and his burlap cousins (voiced by Christopher Plummer, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover, and Jennifer Connelly). The earth’s past, their origins, and the motives of the machines remain unclear but slowly get pieced together as the plot progresses.
The fact that we never get a full understanding of exactly what the machines’ ultimate goal is acts as a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that the film never gets bogged down with exposition. We’re thrown directly into a very unique-looking world, and the plot moves forward at breakneck speed with action every few minutes and the rest of the time spent wistfully examining the apocalyptic rubble of what used to be the world we know. Also, Acker keeps us hooked by maintaining a level of mystery– he knows that what happened in the past isn’t what’s important, it’s what’s happening now that interests us. The curse is that the film’s conclusion seems overly mystical and borders on not making any sense. Acker has a clear idea of what his ending means, and the visuals certainly are intriguing, but instead of having his audience leave the theater contemplating the conclusion, he leaves them frustratedly racking their brains.
All of the action sequences themselves are spectacular– when our heroes take on a flying pterodactyl-esque machine, it’s particularly gripping, with seamless effects helping the scene reach its full potential. That’s the beauty of a CGI action film when it’s fully thought out: they can let the camera go places no real camera could dream of, and shots can go “cut-free” for an impressive amount of time. When the characters are talking, however, it’s a lot of action-movie dialogue: “Let’s go!” “We’ve got to go back!” “Run!” “They’re coming!” et cetera. Aside from a few fascinating flashback sequences, none of the dialogue is illuminating in any way, and for a movie about saving humanity, the script doesn’t seem to convey much of it through words. However, in his use of CGI, mixed in with gorgeous shady colors and eerie sound effects (the use of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” at a key moment will give you chills), Acker gives his little burlap dolls enough life to provide for a beautiful, entertaining 90-minute thrill ride.