9 is a strange film. Originally a short film created by Shane Acker for his thesis in computer animation, Tim Burton caught wind of it and decided to produce a full-length feature based on the short. I genuinely enjoyed it for its moody visuals and themes, which earned it its PG-13 rating, but at the same time felt it failed to live up to its full potential. At its heart, 9 is a mix of sci-fi ideas we’ve seen many times before: it’s part Terminator, part Matrix, and even part Lord of the Rings – which leads to many cliches.
The movie takes place in an alternate reality in which a fascist country echoing Nazi Germany seizes control of a brilliant scientist’s A.I. creation simply called “The Machine”, which promptly turns against the humans. What little we see of humanity takes place in newsreel flashbacks and their lifeless remains. As the war machines take over the world, the scientist manages to create a series of small robots in his lab to continue the spirit of mankind. The film opens as his 9th and final creation boots up completely unaware of who or what it is, or what has happened to the world.
I’ll have to venture into spoiler territory to lay out the issues I had with it, so if you haven’t seen the film I’d advise you to watch it first.
One of 9’s best ideas is that the scientist gifted each of his robot creations a piece of his own soul. This explains the archetypal nature of the heroes and where their sentience comes from. Unfortunately, 9 accidentally reawakens The Machine, which feeds on this energy, and is intelligent enough to fabricate robot minions that are more compelling than itself, which is basically just a big monster with a glowing red eye.
The film falters when, rather than seeing the heroes combine their creative spirit and intelligence to fight The Machine by inventing mechanical tools, we are left with a series of hand-to-hand fight scenes involving mainly makeshift melee weapons. These are action-packed and fun to watch, but don’t make good use of the film’s underlying premise. Near the beginning of the film, 9 creates a torch from an old light bulb and battery. I would have liked to see the heroes put their heads together to come up with more interesting solutions like this in the spur of the moment to reflect their creator’s inventive spirit, particularly as they band together to finally end the menace of The Machine.
The best ideas seem to get lost amidst the action scenes. 9 soon runs afoul of the de facto leader of the group, who has taken a neo-Luddite stance in regards to science and wears makeshift religious attire. He and some of the others have taken refuge in what appears to be the shell of Notre Dame cathedral and forbids 9 from venturing too far afield. This undertone of science vs religion, introduced so early in the film, is quickly abandoned when it could have played a much more pivotal role.
The film also ends on a false spiritual note when, having reclaimed the souls of the lost members of the group, they are released to the heavens instead of (as I think most people will be expecting) they could have been returned to their bodies and been brought back to life. While that would have been perhaps a bit too easy and happy for this film, I think it makes more sense than what finally happens.
While this review might seem largely negative, let me reaffirm that it is an enjoyable and visually stunning action movie. Shane Acker proves he can direct frenetic action scenes that will have you riveted to your seat. His willingness to venture into dark and often frightening territory is a welcome change of pace compared to the vast majority of Western animated films and Tim Burton was right to open the door for his directorial debut. It’s just too bad that 9 isn’t the 9 out of 10 it could have been. And I do look forward to seeing what this new young director comes up with next.
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