First-time director Shane Acker brings a lot of visual panache to his film 9. Unfortunately, it’s all one flavor of panache, housed in a film that’s entirely in one tone, and tied to a story that’s thinner than one of the lighter gases. I suppose if your idea of a good time is watching rag dolls being menaced by steampunkish machines for 79 minutes, 9 will fill the bill. Just be prepared for the fact that that is all this movie is going to do. I cannot recall a feature film that is so completely a one-note affair as this. Technically, the movie is a marvel. Dramatically, it’s a bore.
Owing to the rag-doll nature of the film’s protagonists and the movie’s otherwise vaguely steampunk look, Acker has referred to 9 as “stitchpunk,” a label that also serves as a good description of the story line, which is stitched together from a variety of sources. If the opening reminds you of Coraline, that’s probably because it looks almost identical to it. Even granting that if you’ve seen one post-apocalyptic landscape you’ve seen them all, the one here—and the flashbacks to the destruction of the world—owes more than a little to Hugh Harman’s 1939 cartoon Peace on Earth. (Funny thing is there’s nothing as chilling in 9 as the battle scenes in that 70-year-old cartoon.) One of the perils that besets our heroes in 9 is a dead ringer for the Christmas-tree-eating toy snake in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Quite the oddest borrowings, however, come from the soul-sucking monster machine and the ultimate image of what becomes of these souls. If this doesn’t look familiar, you haven’t seen Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce (1985).
It’s not so much the lack of originality that lays waste to the potential of 9, it’s the lack of a story and characters that we can care much about. Saying that the characters are all ciphers is too easy, since they have numbers rather than names, but it is also true. The sad thing about all this is that it didn’t have to be this way. There are vague intimations of something deeper lying beneath the film’s almost nonexistent story. In terms of design and costuming, for example, No. 1 (Christopher Plummer) resembles a bishop or some other high-church party official. He tries to hold the others in check with promises of evils that will befall them if they don’t listen to him. There’s a hint of satire or sociological critique here, but it goes nowhere. One of the characters—presumably made out of striped pillow ticking—resembles a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, but nothing is made of this. There’s a bond of apparent subtext-worthy depth between No. 5 (John C. Reilly) and No. 2 (Martin Landau), and again it just lies there undeveloped. The sense of the more interesting movie that might have been is frustrating.
What we’re left with—apart from a slightly jarring scene involving a gramophone and Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” that feels like it belongs in another movie—are rag dolls fighting horrific machines. It is visually striking. It’s very often creepy. (Be warned, this film is not meant for small children. There’s a reason for that PG-13 rating.) But in the end, 9 is just not much of anything else. Rated PG-13 for violence and scary images.