Post-Apocalyptic 'Stitchpunk' Goes Limp in '9'

City Pulse | September 7, 2009
This extended version of Shane Acker's Oscar-nominated 11-minute animated UCLA student short follows a group of retro "stitchpunk" doll characters who have numbers instead of names. Elijah Wood voices the title character. 9 bumbles around a post-apocalyptic World War II era bombed-out European landscape where most of the humans have been killed off in a huge war where machines took over. Accompanied by his shrinking group of fellow oppressed creatures, 9 launches a mission to attack the "Great" machine, which seems to embody the monster of industrial capitalism to which his genius creator contributed. John C. Reilly stands out for his vocals as number 5. Unfortunately, the film's overblown chase plot, which substitutes for a story, never makes its thematic perspective clear. Acker's elaborate, dingy visual devices fall flat due to a lack of empathetic context for the creatures, who come off as soulless. Following such recent "nine" titled films like $9.99, District 9, and Cloud 9, Acker's animated sci-fi feature feels like an experiment in mixed metaphors.

9 is a victim of style-over-story. It might not be such a problem if the film's visual throwbacks to a dirtied up Jules Verne sensibility married with a Wall-E kind of nostalgia, didn't go in such a one-track Rube Goldberg direction. Flying machine monsters resemble skull-headed dinosaur skeleton creatures with Edward Scissorhand claws, capable of slicing little cloth bean-bag dolls in a single snip. The freedom-fighter dolls and their grotesque mechanical rivals share an inexplicable tendency for having one blind eye. A particularly gothic, partially dissected, worm/bat/spider vampire creature with articulated metal legs, spins red thread-like spider webbing to mummify its victims. With its one red eye offsetting its other dead eye, the thing is a mute, soulless conglomeration that is interesting to look at but carries as much character import as a clockwork house fly.

The flimsy narrative follows 9 leading his squad to a disused factory-type building where he idiotically brings to life a non-functioning machine monster of mammoth proportions by affixing a circular key with strange inscriptions on it. In the reacquainted company of 7 (Jennifer Connelly), a ninja-styled badass doll warrior, 9 tries to destroy the genie monster that he has unleashed. Backstory revelations about the mad scientist who created the dolls as a last ditch effort to save mankind from its mass produced military machine enforcers comes as too little too late. It does however significantly point out a lacking human element that could have provided a missing emotional component. If the filmmakers had given equal screentime to human characters, as occurred in a successful film like Wall-E, then perhaps the story would have had sufficient dimension. At barely 80 minutes, 9 still feels too long for what it is; an expanded visual experimentation that might allow Shane Acker to finally put an old UCLA student project behind him. Tim Burton and Russian visionary Timur Bekmambetov take producing credits for a movie your kids won't get and you won't enjoy.

(Focus Features) Rated PG-13. 81 mins. (C-) (Two Stars)
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