With the voices of Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly, Christopher Plummer. Directed by Shane Acker. Rated PG-13 for violence and scary images. 79 minutes.
The first question for any narrative film is “Why are you telling me this story?” If the filmmaker can’t answer it, the film is likely to fail no matter how good the performances or how clever the dialogue or how dazzling the visuals. In the case of 9, Shane Acker has adapted his Oscar-nominated short film from 2005 into a feature length work, but hasn’t come up with a reason as to why we should care about what we see. The result is an impressive looking film that leaves us unsatisfied.
The story might be considered the dark side of “WALL*E.” It’s a post-apocalyptic Earth where humanity is gone and only the machines are left. Our hero is a little mechanical doll (voice of Elijah Wood) who has a number 9 on his back. We soon learned that the reason for that is that there eight such dolls who have been activated before him.
When 9 discovers the others, he finds they are led by 1 (Christopher Plummer), who takes a conservative view towards survival. Rather than confront the gigantic machines out to destroy them, 1 prefers to keep them in hiding. 9, naturally, is prepared to take a more direct approach, especially since 2 (Martin Landau), who rescued him, has been captured by one of the machines.
9 takes us through the wreckage of the world and slowly uncovers the truth, aided by the heroic 7 (Jennifer Connolly) and the meek but game 5 (John C. Reilly). You may already get a sense of what the problem is here: the characters are literally ciphers. We may get some details about this one or that, but in the end they’re all mechanical dolls, without any of the depth of, say, the characters in “Toy Story.”
Acker might be able to get away with it if his story was strong enough, but it isn’t. Without giving too much away, 9 has uncovered a device that brings one of the most horrifying machines to life, and their battle with it consumes much of the movie. Unfortunately, when we get to the end, there’s no big payoff. The plot is resolved, in its way, but we’re left with the survivors as the inheritors of the Earth. Those wondering how they will reproduce are already showing more insight than the filmmakers.
Both Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov are billed as producers (the latter the Russian director of the incredible “Nightwatch”), and one can see why these two highly visual filmmakers were taken by this project. Acker has created a textured world that seems like the apocalypse as imagined in the 1930s. This is a world of machines gone mad, not of nuclear destruction.
If only they had pushed Acker and Pamela Pettler (the screenwriter credited with expanding Acker’s story) into putting themselves in the position of theaudience trying to make sense of it all. Watching “9” you’ll likely ask why you should care about what you’re seeing on screen. Unfortunately, the film never seems to be able to answer that question.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.