Shane Acker, director of 9*, has a problem. While his student film and Oscar-nominated short of the same name is mysterious, unconventional and wondrously imaginative, it’s also very narrow-cast—an avante guard project appealing to Acker’s sensibilities and a niche handful of others who enjoy dark, fantastical settings and Hot Topic shopping sprees. The theatrical release exudes the same vibe: too dark and mature for kids, too bleak and somber for mass audience appeal and too short to build an audience relationship. 9 is a wonder of nightmares to behold, but its appeal is going to be very, very narrow.
That’s not to say 9 is a bad film. It’s not–and deserves to be seen–but in spite of its incredible artistry, setting and originality, 9 isn’t a great one either.
Taking its title from its humanoid-shaped burlap sack protagonist, 9 introduces us–by way of a character literally labeled 9– to a cadre of eight small, lovingly crafted rag dolls imbued with life and personality. Mouse-like in their timidity, these “last remnants of humanity” scour a bleak, post-war landscape of a future-retro world for fragments of what humanity left behind. Using the same utilitarianism as the rats in the equally dark The Secret of NIMH, this ennead of sack people use their new-found junk to craft needful things like capes and spears—the capes for decoration, the spears to defend themselves from nightmarish predators cobbled together from the wasteland of post-war flotsam.
Happy to simply hide and wait out all potential threats, the sack people are spurred into action when 9 stumbles out of a bombed out lab and eschews fear for curiosity. In doing so, he unwittingly upsets the existing sack society’s balance of hide and seek awakening an evil relic from the old war. With the help of a host of frighteningly cobbled and horrific minions, the old evil sets out to collect and destroy the remainder of the sack people in a quest to snuff out humanity.
Unquestionably, 9 is a visual marvel, both intricately detailed and imagined. Sadly, the film has two problems. Expanded from an 11-minute short, 9 feels exactly like its an expanded 11-minute short. Its simple and interesting conceit has been stretched further than its original idea could sustain. Rather than fleshing up the original and building on it, the feature film simply duplicates its premise seven times to eek out 80 minutes (with credits). The second problem is an outgrowth of the first: in its expansion, 9 has also truncated any character development—a key factor in bridging the audience through the uncanny valley created by these unique, non-human characters. While expressive, cute and able to generate a small amount of sympathy, they’re not fully realized and lack underlying motivation giving an impersonal “on-the-sidelines” feeling to watching the film.
Which is too bad. 9 never ceases to wow, frighten, disturb and transport. In that sense, 9 elevates itself from two and a half to a tempered three stars as I thoroughly enjoyed the world building. Material like this is so contrary to standard studio fare it deserves to be seen, but all the fever-dreamed fantasy, bleakly beautiful and wholly original inventiveness can’t rescue 9 from the fact it feels narratively flat and emotionally disconnected. And while the fingerprints of 9’s big name producers Tim Burton and Wanted’s Timur Bekmambetov can be seen throughout (especially in a Beetlejuice striped character named 6, complete with a shock of stringy hair, paint splatters and an artistic personality) and even with added star power thanks to the voice talents of Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly, Crispin Glover and John C. Reilly, it’s just not enough to give it a life of its own.
And, again, therein lies Shane Acker’s problem. Not only will general audiences quite possibly find themselves a bit detached, but 9‘s core audience may find themselves grasping for a storyline more substantive than what’s hinted at as well. And that makes me sad, because when I have beautiful nightmares about a post-apocalyptic world, they’ll look very much like 9.
*9 is distributed by Focus Films, the same company that released the enchanting Coraline. The mature “not necessarily for kids” animation they’re championing by distributing films like 9 and Coraline is impressive and laudable. I just hope they stick with it.