“This world is ours now, it’s what we make of it”
Sometimes I am compelled to applaud a film simply for its intentions. 9 has great intentions. It presents harsh truths about humanity—namely how our ambition has lead us to create technologies that, if allowed to run rampant, have the potential to undermine our very being. It suggests that the human spirit will always find a way to survive and allow us to re-build the structures in which we find meaning. So, it intends to scare us a little, and give us some hope at the same time.
The animation is first-rate with textures that are detailed and telling. The world of 9 and its inhabitants are covered in a finely rendered patina of entropy. The story takes place shortly after humanity has been wiped out by a technology it created, which takes the form of a huge Machine. The 9 of the title are small, cobbled-together and fragile creatures, each numbered from 1 through 9, which represent the hope for the continuance of the human spirit. While the threat to them—the very threat that wiped humanity out—is mechanical and soulless, there is a human-like vulnerability to our nine. The reality of their construction is obvious; they seem to be sewn-together sacks of burlap fitted with electronic hands, feet, eyes and mouths, but infused with some essence of humanity. The safekeeping of this essence of humanity, we discover, is the intended purpose of these nine.
The world of 9 is desolate, a landscape of blown-out remains of buildings, sand dunes, and artifacts of an almost-forgotten humanity half-buried in rubble. Our nine forage in these remains of civilization to find the tools necessary to survive. Our film opens with the ninth and final creature awaking and discovering this world and its inhabitants and his desire to, not only survive, but also discover the meaning of their lives. This journey of discovery, and their confrontation with the soulless technology, puts them all in great danger. As mythologies have illustrated since ancient times, we must risk dying in order to truly live.
As is common for these types of stories, 9 also functions as an allegory. The nine have been split up by two differing responses to the threat. 1, fashions himself a hat that gives him the appearance of a bishop, and gathers his followers in an abandoned church, where they basically just sit around hiding from the threat, telling each other stories about how this is the best response. Our bishop also sends out 2 as a sacrificial offering to the threat, in an attempt to appease it. This clearly represents an organized religion—desperately held together with stories to keep its followers constantly afraid of a danger they never get to see, and comforted by the notion of a safe place. The backbone of the story is the mystical idea that there is something in humanity that is greater than our physical presence. The story takes this notion very much to heart. It is not suggesting that soul is a foolish notion, but that the institution of religion, if not allowed to progress and update itself to meet the needs of an evolving society, only acts as a hindrance to the soul. In contrast, 7 has taken a few of the nine out into dangerous territory, to find the threat, face it, and destroy it—this represents rebellion. Again borrowing from mythologies that speak to some ancient part of ourselves, 9 shows us how, in order to fashion order out of chaos, we must venture out into the darkness. In facing the threat, they come to understand their past, present and forge courage to realize their full potential and work towards a future.
While the voice performances are not bad, there is something lacking about them. In a few of our main characters, there is a too-youthful and exuberant quality to the voices that doesn’t quite match the gritty and despairing landscape of the film. Also, the performances lack a crucial urgency. Even when in danger, the voices seem too soft-spoken and subdued. It’s almost as if the characters wanted to express their anger, fear, or pain without waking up any sleeping children tucked away in the next room. Strangely, this subdued quality permeates almost all aspects of the film. Despite some particularly well-crafted elements, the film as a whole never transcends its craftsmanship.
There is one exception. After a grand battle with the Machine, our characters are given a brief respite. They think they’ve eliminated the threat, and gather together to celebrate. With an old turntable, they play a scratchy vinyl recording of Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” The song echoes out into the desolate landscape that now seems warmer and friendlier. The lyrics of the song resonate because our characters are now basking in the hope of a better future. Without any explicit change in score (the song continues to echo), a shape begins to appear in the dust and our blood begins to run cold. Slowly, the dust settles and reveals that the Machine is very much functional, and has come to finish its task. The scene could have been ruined by any number of bad artistic decisions—an ominous score, the full reveal of the Machine coming too early or too late. But all of the elements are in alignment, and the sequence transcends its craftsmanship and becomes perfectly eerie, suspenseful and touching. Not only does it work on this visceral level, it also perfectly illustrates the danger of complacency. Our characters are too quick to congratulate themselves, and forget to be observant. The film does not blame them; contained within our experience of their joy is the understanding that joy is necessary. For a brief moment, the film functions perfectly on all levels, and in that alchemy, it becomes truly great cinema.
9 is a film that recognizes the importance of storytelling to depict life and also offer some illumination. Its intentions are ambitious, honourable and sincere. Wisely, it is not enamoured with its own cleverness like the pretentious Antz. It is, unfortunately, somewhat boring. While completely relevant, it is lacking some key element to make that relevance… well, exciting. It has neither the lightness of touch nor persuasive showmanship of the Pixar films, and its allegorical underpinnings lack the fluidity of Watership Down. We can see where the film is trying to be both visually appealing and meaningful, but it doesn’t quite succeed because its intentions are so distractingly apparent. To say that the film is “trying too hard” is ignorant and dismissive of the nature of artistic endeavor. A good deal of thought and effort goes into a well-crafted story, and I don’t think that artists can ever be trying too hard. But a well-crafted work somehow creates the illusion of effortlessness.
9 has something important to say, and is a worthy viewing experience. It just doesn’t have the potency to become a classic.
Director: Shane Acker
Writers: Pamela Pettler, Shane Acker
Stars: Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly, Crispin Glover, Christopher Plummer