Now Playing: Apocalypse is Feast for the Imagination in ‘9’

10 Sep


9 (PG-13) Directed by: Shane Acker. Writers: Pamela Petter & Shane Acker  79 minutes.

cinemagrade A  Shane Acker’s 9 is all kinds of proof that good things–great ones even–can come in small packages. Trumped up and marketed out of the wazoo recently (it’s nice to see studios finally coming behind their more unique fare) this sci-fi fantasy isn’t just a story about diminutive warrior dolls battling robotic monsters in a burned-out future, it’s also an elaborate fable that approaches art. The most fascinating part is that it does all of this in a scant 79 minutes. It’s fast-paced, exotic and beautifully rendered in tones of steampunk apocalypse and Victorian gothic horror. It may be animated, but it isn’t exclusively for children. I’d dare to guess that it will more than frighten most younger children. But when the familiar and haunting strains of Judy Garland’s ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ echo across a fractured, nightmare landscape, Acker demonstrates that he isn’t just a crafty visualist but also a gifted filmmaker. He shakes up several different genres, themes, motifs and myths into one large stirring pot and what emerges is both unique and fearsome.

Opening with a sequence that demonstrates the eerie magic of marionettes and recalls the glorious days of stop-motion animation, 9 introduces its titular character; a small, sack-cl0th doll with a large metal  zipper running down his chest cavity. There is a little bit of narration from a frazzled scientist, suggesting that something terrible has happened to the world, but that’s it–nothing else. 9 wakes up, unable to speak, and finds a small amulet of sorts sitting next to him. The movie never forgets that it’s protagonist is little over a foot or so high (even though there are no living humans in the film) and these early scenes are downright creepy as we see the lone dollman scurrying over the delapidated architecture of a world gone to ruin. And ruin isn’t the only place it’s gone; the crowning achievement of Acker’s 9 is the dizzying and multi-layered environment that it creates.


Details are packed upon details and if we see a burned out husk of a church, you can bet that a later sequence will feature characters dangling from the stone gargoyles. This isn’t a sanitized or familiar desolation on-screen. The audience isn’t spared the broken bits of human debris–bones, bodies, and all of the useless trinkets of a vanished world. In one scene 9 hides behind a car that still holds the bloated, gassed bodies of a mother and her child. When he finally finds more of his kind, he also encounters ‘The Beast’ an automated snarl of nastiness that combines animal carcasses with hi-tech bits–taxidermy meets Radio Shack. So, no the movie isn’t playing around, but neither is it needlessly grim. In 9 and his compatriots, Acker finds the innocent core of the film’s dark universe and keeps the bright glimmers of hope coming at about the same interval as the enchantment.

So, what is the film about exactly? Well, telling would ruin most of the fun. 9 is more an experience than amovie, and it’s narrative thrust is like a carnival ride that ends up in front of funhouse mirrors.  Instead,let me drop just a few details. The world has come apart, and based on the too-fresh art deco designs, it appears this alternate history saw the whole thing crumble in the 30s or 40s. 9 isn’t the only sackdoll and soon meets his brothers and sisters; more miniature automatons who can speak, have individuality, and bear identifying numbers 1 through 8. Their existence is a hard one, and they combat the remaining machine monstrosities–possibly left over from a kind of human/robot skirmish that makes the Terminator films look blaise–while trying to learn all they can about the species that left them inheritors of this world. Secrets and prognostications suggest that the talisman 9 carries might be of great importance and the central mystery deals with the true purpose for the puppet’s creation. Like many protagonists in dystopic future worlds, 9 doesn’t know how he got here or what part he is supposed to play, but he does understand that he must resist his surroundings in order to change them.


I love the character designs. The beautiful and creepy backdrop setting for the film is majestic, but it can be occassionally too dark, too severe, and more terrifying than such a fantastical story can support. So, when Acker creates simple, almost cutesy doll designs to represent the 9, he brings in a childlike familiarity that softens the grimmer aspects. Each puppet has its own identifying features; features that ensure we don’t forget their simple number names. The voicework, also topnotch, aids in that goal. Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, Martin Landau, Crispin Glover and Christopher Plummer all bring their respective touches to the characters. It helps make them incredibly expressive, and when the story moves into even odder shades of sci-fi, it becomes completely plausible that we can relate to this odd band of small creatures.

And then there are the monsters. Whoo, boy! The monsters. Envisioned like an industrialist nightmare mixed with illustrations for a children’s fairy tale storybook, the robotic enemies are both menacing and engaging. They move oddly, fixate on strange things, and can’t ever correctly mimic natural life but they soldier on, relentlessly. As I said before, what Acker has populated his artificial landscape with is far more compelling and imaginative than the artificial villains of both The Terminator and The Matrix. Then again those pictures used the end of the world as icing on the cake, and in 9 it’s all apocalypse all the time.  The action scenes are mesmerizing and  strewn all throughout the movie. These battles have a sense of the classical and the fabulous to them, and it’s an odd thought to consider that years after the human race has been overthrown that small dolls and hard-wired machinery are waging wars that recall the exploits of mythic heroes.


None of this is lost on 9, and just taking in the extensive and boldly designed atmosphere is an exercise in and of itself. As a child I gravitated to films like Secret of Nimh and Time Bandits; movies that felt so rich, that it wasn’t just a treat to watch them a sec0nd time, it was a must. They were dark, and sometimes odder than they needed to be, but in their perplexing structures and odd characters I found a kind of comfort. I think it’s the same for younger audiences today, and 9 is exactly the kind of picture for that audience. Acker paints in big, bold strokes, and he doesn’t hold back. He catapults the casual viewer and the sci-fi fan forward at the same speed and makes sure everyone gets to the finish line with their eyes dizzy, their minds wheeling, and their hearts singing. This is the kind of film that repeat veiwings were made for.

Shane Acker’s original short film that inspired 9:

2 Responses to “Now Playing: Apocalypse is Feast for the Imagination in ‘9’”

  1. Cello September 10, 2009 at 11:02 am #

    Awesome, you gave it an A! I’m hyped! I’ve heard mixed reactions but I know how you review, and youre definetely credible in my book so I will catch this flick this weekend. You gave distrcit 9 an A+ however and I hated that movie…but you get a pass on that :P. Thanks for all yoru hard work on your reviews! Keep ’em coming.

  2. hagiblog September 26, 2009 at 1:00 pm #

    Great review! I hadn’t seen the short before but I’m glad I watched it after the movie since so much of it is very close to the actual film. It’s a great movie and I can’t wait to get it home into my DVD player and watch it again.

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