Posted on September 14, 2009 by Flames
When I went out to see one of this weekend’s newest box office’s offerings “9”, I knew a scarce few details about it. I knew from the trailers it was CG animated, it has robots covered in burlap bags, I knew it had something to do with a post-apocalyptic setting, I knew that the #1 fan of darkness and the macabre himself Tim Burton produced it and I knew it carried a PG-13 rating. With these details I was eager to see it, and to make sure I was covering more bases since I planned to review this flick, I brought along my fourteen year old daughter with me to get her thoughts and insights. I assumed the film might have been more aimed at an audience more her age level than my own. To a point I was right on in my assumption, but in others points I was way off.
Doing some homework after paying 9 a visit, I’ve since learned that it was based off of an 11 minute silent short from new director Shane Acker as his thesis project from his grad school days at UCLA. The short film gave the world a 3-D setting, by that I mean Dark, Desolate & Destroyed. The homo-sapiens have long been snuffed out and the globe is now inhabited by a few burlap coated doll sized robots. The short was created using stop animation techniques.
It seems Acker is all grow’d up these days. He’s caught the eye of Tim Burton, who placed him in the director’s chair while he produced a full length animated film with a budget worthy of the much prettier CG animation technique and an additional hour and change added to the running time. And just what is 9 about? It’s a world with a 3-D setting, and by that I mean Dark, Desolate & Destroyed. The homo-sapiens have long been snuffed out and the globe is now inhabited by a few burlap coated (because rag doll looks are so passé these days I suppose) doll sized robots.
However, it’s now got a script behind it, written by Pamela Pettler (who’s no stranger to Tim Burton as she wrote his “Corpse Bride” flick). And as an added bonus, the time honored Tim Burton film constant composer Danny Elfman is thrown in this batch of cookie dough for good measure. So how does Acker fare with a script, a CGI studio and a script you might ask? Let open the burlap bag and dig in shall we?
Visually, while this is not a horror film, it boasts plenty of horrific and unnerving scenery and action for a PG-13 piece. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Shane is either a fan of Burton’s visual style or is more likely his protégé. The attention to detail is simply astounding here. The colors are all grays, browns, shadows and blackness. Shane successfully pains a bleak and scary world that sucked me into it in a first five minutes.
While this world was a crappy place where I pray I’ll never have to see first hand, I was somehow entranced by it, especially seeing it through the eyes of these doll sized robots. Shane could have added another hours worth of a guided tour of this bombed out planet and I’ve have watched it with fascinated glee like the dark & bleak atmosphere loving mook that I am.
Story and theme wise… I’m not quite sure what to say about it. Its head was based in a science fiction frame of mind, but its heart beat at an action films pace. Therefore as typical of an action film, it chose action and danger over substance and emotive, educational content. Any self respecting science fiction piece tries to teach us something about ourselves or warn us about something that we may do to ourselves if were not careful. 9 hinted and even fired a few warning shots across our noses about “being good to ourselves” and the “evils of technology gone wrong” and a few other conventions familiar to the genre. But in the end, its action heart won out and kept the “action and reaction” on center stage.
So, with this kind of nature I believe that 9 was indeed aimed at an audience closer to my kiddo’s age. But with Shane’s detail-heavy hand at the helm, he couldn’t help himself and gave the visual side of the flick much more than was required… and honestly more than the script deserved. The script provided no real jerky for a grizzled old sci-fi fan like me to chew on. I could pick out ideas and themes borrow from the many Terminator & Matrix flicks while pointing out where 9 walked the same road that Stanly Kubrck, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and other Sci-fi hall of famer’s have boldly gone before. That being said, to all the teen larvae that haven’t seen such films before, it may feel like new ground for them and may tempt their pallet to want to enjoy other sci-fi flicks that really have something to say to them when they get older.
Shane seems to have his director brains firmly grounded in Tim Burtonville (especially his Edward Scissor Hands days) and created something that I’ve never seen before visually. The original look was one thing, but the visual creatively displayed on screen also helped elevate 9 to heights the script couldn’t have alone. The burlap bots are very tactile beings and use fish hooks, thread, camera lenses, bird skulls, headlight bulbs, lots of knives and sharp objects and myriad other items in extremely creative ways during their daily survival. Even the predators out to get them are pretty cleverly created concoctions (say that three times fast) of spare parts, bits and pieces. One of my personal favorite baddies is a frightening mix of a cat skeleton brimming with parts and motors; I will forever fear bionic cats from this day forward.
I make it a point to not ruin movie plots in my reviews (I really despise reviews who do this), so I wont go into a lot of detail about the story. Part of the reason is that there isn’t much more of a story than the constant fight for survival that’s creates an excuse for lots of action. But I will say the main villain reminded me of a mixture of things; its part one of the big bad bots from The Matrix Trilogy, part erector set-spider like thing with the dolls head attached from Toy Story and part “Big Daddy” from the Bio-Shock video game. It’s really menacing and provides for some genuinely creepy scary moments.
After talking to my daughter about what she got out 9 and what she enjoyed about it, her thoughts pretty closely reflected mine. She really didn’t take away much from it story wise. But she is smart enough that even she recognized that the film could have used more time getting to know the characters. I couldn’t agree more with her; while each of the nine bots have plenty of visual differences between them (including a number on their back side that signifies their order of creation); character wise, aside from 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood) the rest of the bunch follow easily recognizable clichés.
I’ll give a quick pat on the butt to Crispin Glover’s work; he was obviously inspired casting as the misfit robot #6. Another pat goes out to Christopher Plummer, who’s no stranger to voicing animated features. The duder’s in top notch form as the priestly leader of the pack #1. The other voice actors (Martin Landau, Jennifer Connelly and John C. Reilly) do a decent job, but don’t get a lot of material to work with. Case and point, the twin bots #4 and #5 are mute robots covered with a pair of garden gloves and they seem to exhibit more character than the speaking bots in their shared scenes. No doubt to the credit of Shane’s visual directing prowess.
So after all is said and built, 9 is a gorgeous piece of CG cinema that rivals Pixar in visual ability. However, in this day of being offered such tightly scripted Pixar films consistently, people will compare 9 as a poor cousin’s version of Wall-E. This is an unfair comparison as they are both very different movies while set in a similar theme. If 9 had a better script it would have (not could have, would have) really been something extraordinary. As is, it’s an above average popcorn film that deserved more. But regardless, I still encourage y’all to go out and see this one. Shane’s visual effort deserves to be witnessed at least once on the big screen (it’s a shame 9 didn’t make it out in IMAX format as it would have been worth it).
Side Note: I’m taking yet another jab at the worst movie of the year, “Transformers 2”. Trans 2 also displays good looks, but had plot holes galore, a childish attitude and idiocy that ran rampant and played twice as long as 9’s running time. It’s a merit to 9 that even at half the length it’s a much more enjoyable and mature of a film. It really says something tragic and sad to me that Trans 2 made over 400 million clams while this film will most likely get overlooked in the end. But this is not a social commentary, so I’ll get off my soap box now and build a few burlap bots of my own…you know, just in case the human race crosses the “finished” line.
Review by Steven Dawes