Spoiler Warning: This review reveals major details about the movie’s plot
When I first saw the previews for 9, I was pretty stoked. “Awesome!” I thought to myself, ” A Tim Burton film that’s a commentary on a post-apocalyptic future!” It looked thrilling, exciting- where it could go wrong?
Let me first set the record straight here- though Burton has been repeatedly linked with 9, it’s not a Tim Burton film (we’re going to have to hold out for the new Alice in Wonderland movie if we want to see a Tim Burton movie). Burton is one of the film’s producers, but the film is written and directed by Shane Acker. Acker created the short film version of 9 back in 2005, and impressed Burton so much that together the two men began working on the full-length version.
Of course, I didn’t know this entire back story when I sat down in the theater, and it wasn’t until the opening credits rolled that I realized that Burton wasn’t the director, and Acker was instead. Okay, so I was already slightly disappointed; being a big Burton fan, that was one of the main draws of the film for me, and it had already been taken away. Acker is relatively unknown (having only ever directed one other film- an independent release in 1999), but I still kept the faith- at least Burton was a producer, and who knows what Acker is capable of, right?
The movie begins with a Scientist (Alan Oppenheimer) creating a mechanical rag doll, and naming him 9 (Elijah Wood). We overhear the Scientist saying that humanity is coming to an end, so something must live on. As he finishes 9, the Scientist collapses and dies. What we can assume is several years pass, and 9 magically awakens. He ventures off from the Scientist’s home and soon discovers that there are more of his kind- 8 other rag dolls have been scattered around a desolate land that was once earth.
Before I explain the plot any further, I must stop and appreciate how stylish the film’s design is. Right from the opening scene with the Scientist sewing together 9, I was in awe of how life-like the animation was. When 9 first gets his glimpse of the outside world, so do we, and the result is absolutely stunning. The landscape is exquisitely detailed, and varying shades of greens and grays are used to give off a very dark and ominous feeling.
As I mentioned before, the world as we know it has now been destroyed; robots have revolted against the humans and killed them all. Most of the robots seem to be out of commission, but a few of them are still roaming the earth, and terrorizing poor 9 and his friends.
A series of mishaps ends with 9 awakening a most terrible beast- the biggest machine of all that then goes on an attacking spree- furiously trying to gather up 9 and the rest of the rag dolls and steal their souls. In the end, it’s up to 9 and his friends to kill the machine or figure out its secret- whichever they can do first.
The film’s strength is definitely in its host of characters. There is no character development- as I stated above, the movie begins when 9 awakens. But that doesn’t matter very much; all of the characters have some sort of individualistic traits that are endearing.
9 quickly emerges as both the fearless leader and underdog, you root for him, you cry with him as he fumbles- he’s the character that you feel both proud of and worried for throughout the movie. Wood’s voice acting is also terrific; he gives the rag doll plenty of life through his emotional portrayal. Likewise, characters like 5 (John C. Reilly), 2 (Martin Landau) and 7 (Jennifer Connelly), act as 9’s lovable sidekicks. 5 is the opposite of 9- often afraid, unsure and worried, but the two have the closest friendship throughout the film. Reilly voices the fear and uncertainty of 5 perfectly. 2 is the group’s elder and a brave inventor, whom, thanks to Landau’s gentle voice, you immediately fall in love with. 7 is the only female of their kind, but Connelly gives the character a strong voice and spunky personality, making her a worthy addition to the group. Meanwhile, 1 (Christopher Plummer), plays a sort of antagonist as the group’s former leader- he and 9 have different points of view throughout the film; while 1 would rather hide and keep the group safe, 9 thinks they should go to action and stop the machines and save their friends. Plummer plays the character perfectly- he begins the film as a negative force in the group, but comes around towards the end.
Perhaps the characters being so likeable was one of the film’s biggest faults, however. Though the script I’ve explained above does sound fine, in reality, the movie wasn’t as straight forward as I’ve described things. From the moment 9 leaves the Scientist’s home, he is attacked. Twenty minutes into the film, and right after you really began to grow attached to him, 2’s soul is taken away and he is killed. The movie goes on in this matter; the rag dolls are always one step away from being killed.
I suppose this makes sense in this post-apocalyptic world, where machines do nothing but destroy, but honestly? After a while, the hunting and peril are too much. Yes, I was on the edge of my seat the entire time, but not in a good way. There’s just enough character development in the movie for you to care about the characters and then the rest of the movie is spent with you having to watch them narrowly escape death every few seconds. At some parts of the movie, I really started to wonder if the whole point of the film was just a stylish way of blowing up machines and killing rag dolls.
The machines themselves are somewhat frightening. The whole film has a Steampunk feel to it, and the destructive monsters fit in with this style. I would NEVER allow a small child to see this movie- I’m a grown woman, and some of the scenes were a bit frightening even for me. I did have to laugh, however, when one of the monster machines appears and looks like the doll head monster that Sid creates in first Toy Story film.
This wasn’t the only time that I laughed at something in the film. As the movie goes on, 9 realizes that he must go back to the Scientist’s laboratory to find out how to destroy the main machine. Lucky for him, the Scientist has left behind a video of what to do to kill the machine. In the video, he also explains how 9 and the other rag dolls were made. Apparently, the Scientist has split his soul into nine parts and stuck it into each of the dolls.
“So he basically made Horcruxes?” I said aloud, while watching the film. Harry Potter fans will know what I’m referring to; it literally sounds like Acker stole a page straight from J.K. Rowling’s book with this part of the plot. In the sixth Harry Potter book and film (The Half Blood Prince), we learn that the evil Lord Voldemort has split his soul into seven parts and scattered them about.
However, unlike in Rowling’s story, there is no explanation of how the Scientist did it or even why– we just know that his soul is inside of all the rag dolls. Oookay.
That’s just an example of my biggest complaint about 9- the utter lack of a plot. Sure, there’s a basic, cracker-thin plot there, but no real back story. We don’t know why the machines revolt. We don’t know why 9 is created (except for the filmsy explanation given at the beginning. But who cares if something lives on, if it’s only pieces of your own soul? They can’t procreate or anything can they? They can’t rebuild or repopulate the earth, can they? What’s their purpose, other than to be hunted by the same machine you made, stop that same machine, and then what?). We don’t know what 9 and his friends are supposed to do, even if there weren’t any crazy machines trying to kill them. We don’t know how the Scientist splits his soul, why he chose to put it in “living” rag dolls, we don’t really know the answer to anything other than the basics- 9 is here, he has to save rag dolls 1-8, and that’s about it.
Even the ending is unsatisfying and unresolved. Of course, 9 stops the machine, but most of the other friends are killed, and we last see them floating up into the sky as green wasps of air. 9 and the other three other remaning dolls are left standing alone in the destroyed and dark land, and when 7 asks 9 what comes next, 9 answers that he doesn’t know, but the world is theirs. Oh, awesome. A dusty world full of broken, rusted, human objects fifty times the size of you is all yours. It’s like winning the lottery! Except crappier.
I thought, perhaps, the ending would be a happy one- maybe when they destroyed the monster, the other rag dolls would return to their previous form, and the group of them could go on living happily ever after. I know this is a very Walt Disney ending, but what can I say- I’m a sentimental (and let it be known, that I definitely spent half of the movie crying as each of the characters got thoughtlessly- and extremely violently- killed). I even thought that maybe once the machine was killed the souls would bond together somehow and reawaken the Scientist, and he’d have put away some sort of plan to recreate the earth once the last machine was destroyed. I think my latter idea would’ve been a far better ending for the film, but alas, I wasn’t called when they were writing the script.
Instead, what we get is an unresolved ending that left me sitting in my seat for a few minutes as the credits rolled thinking, “What the hell was that?”
I can’t quite tell you what 9 is, but I can tell you what it is not. It’s not a commentary on anything, there is no moral about creating machines, really, and even more disturbing, no moral about creating these poor rag dolls, imparting them with a soul and then leaving them to fend for themselves in a destructive world (this reminded me of Spielberg’s A.I. where at least, the moral dilemma of creating a robot with human feelings and then leaving it on its own is tackled; 9 is worse- creating a robot with a human soul, and then deserting it- though there is nothing said about it really). There is no real theme, other than “stay alive!” and the whole thing sort of acts out like a video game. I find it interesting that 9 was developed from a short film- perhaps it should’ve simply stayed that way.