There is no denying the technical wizardry of 9, Shane Acker’s feature-length reimagining of his own Oscar-nominated short from 2005. Backed by producers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted), the young director has assembled a superior voice cast, led by the wonderfully expressive Christopher Plummer, to breathe life into a familiar post-apocalyptic fable distinguished by its exquisite artistry.
Does it detract from Pamela Pettler and Acker’s story that we’ve seen variations of it so often before, most recently in Terminator Salvation? It does, but hardly enough to dull the luster of its most innovative flourishes.
At 11 minutes and unencumbered by dialogue, the original 9 benefited from a certain sense of mystery. As Acker’s wide-eyed puppets stumbled through the rubble of a ravaged world, hunted at every turn by mechanical predators, the makings of a strange, melancholy fairy tale were implied but never spelled out; here, they are, and if the storytelling leaves something to be desired, the spectacle more than compensates.
Acker’s “stitchpunk” creations – eight-inch puppets whose bodies resemble burlap sacks and whose round eyes convey surprising depths of emotion – are the rugged survivalists at the heart of 9, which takes place sometime after World War II, long after humanity and their God-like creator have been eradicated. Yet man’s most fearsome weapons, which have become self-aware and roam the post-doomsday wreckage with impunity, remain as active and ornery as ever.
The last of the creator’s masterworks – and, perhaps, the one best equipped to lead his tiny tribe toward a better tomorrow – Number 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood) proves a quick study when it comes to braving what resembles a bombed-out London, reminiscent of Gerald Scarfe’s nightmarish illustrations of the future from Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Yet 9’s curiosity awakens the ultimate beast: The Great Machine, a spider-like, soul-sucking terminator programmed to kill anything that moves.
At roughly 80 minutes, 9 hardly feels stretched to the breaking point, as so many expanded shorts do. The action is fast, furious and beautifully conceived; there’s no shortage of things to admire, particularly Acker and animation director Joe Ksander’s haunting landscapes, which are packed with enough detail for multiple viewings. Longtime Burton collaborator Danny Elfman’s moody score lends itself to the creepiness.
Acker is clearly unafraid to make statements with his art, even if there’s nothing particularly fresh about them. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that a Nazi-like regime facilitated the rise of the machines through reckless warmongering; later, we see a church burned to the ground (much to the dismay of the priest-like Number 1, voiced by Plummer), suggesting either the death of God or the failure of religion.
I’m not sure 9 is a deep enough movie to support such imagery with the substance it requires, and as a paranoid fantasy about the dangers of rapidly advancing technology, it’s a little late to the party. But as evidence of how far animation technology has progressed, and how skillfully Acker is able to manipulate it, it is an almost unparalleled achievement.