Looks: Still Not Everything
Shane Acker’s debut is gorgeous on the outside
by Molly Templeton
9: Directed by Shane Acker. Story by Acker; screenplay by Pamela Pettler. Editing, Nick Kenway. Music, Deborah Lurie. With the voices of Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly, Martin Landau, Christopher Plummer, Crispin Glover and John C. Reilly. Focus Features, 2009. 88 minutes. PG13.
The best thing about 9, director Shane Acker’s feature-length revisiting of his Oscar-nominated student film of the same name, is trying to keep an eye on each of the film’s fabric-skinned ragdoll-like beings (nine in all, of course). The small, bottom-heavy figures — each an appealing blend of lens-like eyes, oversized wood or metal hands, various fabrics and closures — are almost all that’s still moving in a burned-out city that looks slightly out of date, as if the film’s world is an alternate history timeline that split off from London circa the Blitz. The dolls spend their time avoiding the Beast, a sort of mechanical cat with a skull for a head. Later in the film, the Beast has other forms, each an eerie approximation of a familiar animal or two, each made out of spare parts of machines and creatures. Its threat is obvious: The soft, fragile creatures have no protection against the systematic, tireless threat of this weird twist of technology — just like humans, we silly, breakable things, had no chance against the Great Machine, a mechanical brain which turned on its makers some time ago. (Skynet it’s not, but it’s just as good at eradicating humans.)
9 (Elijah Wood), the last doll to wake into this quiet, ominous world, is the first to suggest taking the fight for survival to the Beast, which has driven some of the dolls into hiding and taken the lives of others. 1 (Christopher Plummer), the dolls’ previously unquestioned leader, advocates safety and retreat, with the towering 8 (Fred Tatasciore) as his muscle. 6 (Crispin Glover) doesn’t make any sense; he just draws a shape, over and over again. The dolls have thin, limited personalities, but the movie cleverly grounds their narrow view of the world into their very existence. It’s the best idea in a film that is full of incredible imagery and incredibly stale storytelling.
In a flashback reel, this world’s history spills out in dollops and splashes of familiarity: a scientist with good intentions, an invention gone awry when misused, an evil chancellor whose regime sports a red and black logo, a deadly war. Somehow, the dolls are the last hope for life on this earth. The Great Machine, once awakened, seems to want only to destroy them: it’s man’s creation against man’s creation, vying to steal or keep what’s left of humanity’s soul.
There’s nothing wrong with a good post-apocalyptic adventure tale, but Acker’s brilliance is all in the vision, in the way the buildings seem ready to crumble, the machines move with a terrifying precision and the dolls look so lovingly made, flaws and all. There’s so much to admire in the details of each gorgeously animated image — the dolls’ smart appropriation of items from their environment! The variation in textures from doll to doll! The mechanical dirigibles! — you might be able to overlook the repetitive plot, the awkwardly misty last scenes or the way the action scenes seem better suited to a really cool Nintendo game. I wanted to take the controller out of the hands of whoever held it and steer the dolls in another direction, off into the wild, bleak world Acker so thoroughly devised, off to where a better story awaited them.