A nagging sense of incompletion haunts 9, Shane Acker’s feature-length expansion of his Academy Award-nominated 2004 short (also his graduate thesis film for the UCLA animation program). Acker has an undeniable gift for conjuring creatures and images at once fiendishly bizarre and curiously tactile, and the best moments in 9 hint at a darkly captivating sensibility that will hopefully be developed over time. As it stands, however, his debut film feels like a collection of visually entrancing doo-hickeys that lack the developed context they deserve: ghouls in search of a proper nightmare.
Not that the film’s characters are all monstrous. Some are rather cute, if you can really categorize doll-sized creatures stitched together from gardening gloves and burlap as such. The final inventions of a benevolent elderly gentleman known as the scientist (voiced by Alan Oppenheimer) before his death, they are identified simply by the numerals painted on their back. What led to their creation? It’s a mystery we explore alongside the newly finished hero #9 (Elijah Wood). He awakens to find a wrecked world entirely devoid of humanity. As he soon discovers, this post-apocalyptic landscape resulted from a war between humans and machines, which turned against their creators and decimated the world’s population. Upon joining up with his fellow creatures—including curmudgeonly group leader #1 (Christopher Plummer), kindly scientist #2 (Martin Landau), and independent-minded warrior #7 (Jennifer Connelly)—#9 looks to survive attacks by marauding machines while attempting to uncover the group’s purpose, which ultimately hinges upon nothing else than the reemergence of human civilization.
These little creatures all have their own distinct look, with lovingly wrought details that hint at how their design matured over time (#1 has a string that gathers his skin/fabric at the top of his head, while the newer #9 possesses a literally seamless dome and a handy zipper down his chest and stomach for easy storage). If only their personalities were so distinctive. 9 devotes little energy to sketching anything but the most basic of characteristics for any of its protagonists, with interpersonal friendships and frictions falling into fairly perfunctory categories. I’m not looking for Chekhovian depth here, but it would be nice if the protagonists’ internal traits were at least as intriguingly textured as their external layers.
The film’s vision of a world gone machine-mad similarly feels aesthetically satisfying and thematically malnourished. Acker’s evil robot creatures certainly linger in the mind, combining jagged junkyard clankiness and insect-like creepy-crawliness. One particularly frightening creation looks like the demon spawn of a mutant centipede and that erector-set spider with the baby-doll head from Toy Story. These imaginative monstrosities should be the center of some head-spinning dystopian freak show; instead, they are the villains in a relatively standard-issue plot about the hubris of human progress and how true salvation comes from cooperation and self-sacrifice. It’s not an unworthy message per se, and Acker sprinkles the film with hints of weirdo wit. Still, one cannot shake the feeling that 9 would have worked better as a collection of stills or a gallery installation: the individual images evoking ideas and emotions that reach beyond the confines of the film’s limited—and limiting—narrative.