Monday, January 25, 2010

Good Steampunk Fun, Until the Plot Gets the Sack

I suppose I should begin this post with a clarification. I am reviewing 9, the 2009 CGI film about doll-like creatures in a post-apocalyptic world. I am not reviewing Nine, the 2009 remake of 8 1/2 that features Penelope Cruz dancing and singing in her underwear. The latter movie is apparently quite a disappointment, while the subject of my review was in fact quite a good movie.

9 is the story of a group of numerically-named... well, it's hard to decide what to call them. Dolls? Living puppets? Homunculi? In any case, the protagonists look as if they're refugees from a gritty steampunk reboot of LittleBigPlanet; there are indeed a few scenes that appear far too videogame-y. The diminutive protagonists wander a destroyed Earth; judging from the state of ruined technology we see, this world died in some even-bloodier alternate 1940's. Human corpses still litter streets and bombed-out buildings, though the discreet camera rarely focuses on them.

Tim Burton was one of the producers for 9, though director Shane Acker apparently conceived the story and characters. This is Acker's first full-length film, and I'm afraid he wears all his influences on his sleeve. The general aesthetic is Burton-esque, though the film lacks the real nastiness that often mars Burton's films. The stronghold of the evil machines resembles Mordor in The Lord of the Rings films – for which Acker contributed some digital effects – while another shambling machine clearly has relatives in The Matrix. While 9 doesn't lack for derivative moments, it also features a number of wonderfully original creations. I especially like the "Serpent" monster that attacks our heroes; it's a creature of metal, porcelain, and yarn that bears a dead homunculus as the rattle of its tail. It's a very impressive beast, and one almost feels bad when the intrepid 9 destroys it.

Like most big-budget CGI films, 9 has several major stars providing voiceovers. Elijah Wood plays 9 (The Lord of the Rings influence again), Jennifer Connelly plays platonic love interest 7, and Christopher Plummer plays the mildly despotic ruler 1. All the actors provide good performances, and none makes the error of trying to steal the show from the apocalyptic setting and the mechanical beasts.

Like most non-Disney animation, this is not an actor's film. The CGI is good, though I can't say it blew me away. The backgrounds sometimes seem a trifle static; the last war seems to have killed off not just the humans but also the cockroaches. The quiet dead world fits 9's stories, but it doesn't provide the animators much room for grace notes and flourishes.

Before I saw 9, I'd read some speculation that the writers might originally have intended to resolve the plot in a different manner. Certainly there are artifacts of a different – and better – story in 9, and I think the film's last act is rather weak. For most of the film's running time, 9's world seems to operate on movie-science-steampunk rules, but the film's ending both fails to resolve much of anything and introduces unnecessary mysticism. 9 ends with an image of renewal – rain once again falling on the ruined Earth – but there's little sense that anything has really changed. To be perfectly frank, I don't think the story ever had all that much room to breathe; 9 runs only an hour and twenty minutes. I wouldn't have minded further explorations of the film's world and characters; perhaps the budget didn't allow for it. Perhaps the producers realized that 9 has a demographic problem: It's a comparatively dark computer-animated film rated PG-13 and not exactly likely to set the box office afire.

9 is a pretty, entertaining film, but I can't help but think it could have been much more. It's terribly short and the initially compelling story falls apart near the end. Still, 9's world, its creatures, and its action won me over in the end. In a better world, 9 would have been a great film. I hope Acker gets the chance to make some more movies; I'm very curious to see what else he can do.

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