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When 9 (voice of Elijah Wood) first comes to life, he finds himself in a post-apocalyptic world where all humans are gone. Upon discovering a community of other beings like him, 9 takes the lead in an effort to strike back at the machines that control the world and are bent on exterminating most signs of life.
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There’s probably no scenario more disturbing than waking up suddenly, alone in a grimy world filled with dead bodies and dirty air and no clue as to who you are and what sort of place you’ve ended up in. Such is exactly the situation the inquisitive “9” (Elijah Wood) finds himself in, in director Shane Acker’s feature length adaptation of his Oscar nominated short film.
“9” is the second short film to be expanded to a better than decent feature length cousin in the last couple of months, and it’s got a lot of the same strengths and weaknesses that film did. Short films, by their nature emphasize mood and tone and the pure cinema side of cinematic story-telling because it has to. Extreme brevity and quality narrative story-telling don’t go together that well, that often. Real narrative development takes a certain amount of time. In a short film, that sort of thing can be fudged a bit without damaging the whole. In a feature film that’s not being made by David Lynch, not so much.
The short film strengths, however, are very strong in “9;” probably even stronger than in the original short. Acker and his animator’s have upped their game throughout and the purely visual storytelling is a treat. Acker has created a fully realized world and he gets a tremendous amount of acting and emoting out of his little robot/rag dolls as they wander through the hellish landscape he’s created. It’s not an accident that most of the films storytelling is purely visual, with a minimum of dialog.
Which is for the best because when the film turns to more traditional narrative techniques, it’s weakly conceived. “9’s” small ensemble is largely archetypes (the nice way of saying clichés) rather than characters that devote a good portion of their limited dialog to exposition, explaining a back-story that is also something of an archetype.
After running into a small group of other numbered dolls and feral, robotic cat beast, 9 learns that of a great war between men and machines that lead to the end of all life on the planet due to the machinations of a fascist, Hitlerist dictator that got out of his control.
It’s not a particularly new story and the characters don’t add much to it. They’re very quickly sketched—one is an independent fighter, one is a brute, one is insightfully-psychotic artist with visions of a strange device—in order to make them immediately relatable in the brief amount of time they’re allowed, but it doesn’t do much for giving them any depth.
It doesn’t do the main plot much good either, which quickly unfolds into a quest for a magic MacGuffin device that will save the dolls from the evil machine left over from the days of the war that is stalking them. Or at least, 9 is certain it will due to his uncanny, natural intuition and his belief despite some evidence to the contrary.
If that sounds familiar it’s because Hollywood has used some version of this plot in most of the big budget adventure films it has made over the past 30 years. Both of the “Transformer” films used an iteration of it. The downside of that kind of storytelling is that it becomes very easy to slip from lazy to stupid storytelling.
“9” fortunately doesn’t have that problem. Acker and screenwriter’s Pamela Pettler and Ben Gluck may have taken the easy way out in some spots but they still know what they’re doing. Still, “9” is undeniably more interested in its visuals than its narrative.
The strengths of that are obvious from the opening moments. Acker’s film is lush and compelling and generally beautiful to look at, and his numerous action beats are well designed and executed. Especially towards the end as the film turns into a conflict between an unbound id and an unbound ego for control of the place they live.
But. As good as “9” looks and as well paced as it is, its also clear that the real focus is on the visuals and the action beats and everything else is what has to be dealt with to get from one adventure sequence to the next.
Taken of itself, “9” is better than okay, with great visuals and a decent story. It’s just one that we’re all more than familiar with by now.