We've seen "9" so many times.
The post-apocalyptic setting has long been a staple of science fiction. The skies are a soulless gray, the landscape is littered with wreckage and debris. And the protagonists wander through this endless wasteland always fearful of attack from mindless, malevolent creatures.
"9" even borrows the cause of doomsday: mankind builds a Tower of Babel in the form of a super-intelligent computer that will solve the world's problems. And then the Tower comes crashing down. The computer becomes self-aware, assembles an army, and begins to exterminate humanity. After the rise - and more recent fall - of the "Terminator" series any use of such a narrative automatically feels like a stale rip-off.
So what's the film's innovation? It does all this with computer-generated sock-puppets. It's Lamb Chop meets "Mad Max."
OK, they're not really sock-puppets. They just look like cloth creatures with zippers and button-like eyes.
The film begins with the awakening of 9 (Elijah Wood) a "stitchpunk." 9 has a zipper going down his chest and is probably about 6 to 8 inches tall. His origins are unknown as he wanders out into the apocalyptic landscape where he soon encounters others like him. There's 2 (Martin Landau) who's a kindly tinker. 1 (Christopher Plummer) is the oldest and the scared, authoritarian leader. The twins 3 and 4, who do not talk, are archivists continually gathering information. 5 (John C. Reilly) is an easily-frightened mechanic/healer who only has one eye. 6 (Crispin Glover) is the crazy prophet, continually making paranoid drawings. 7 (Jennifer Connelly) is a kind of Amazon warrior with a spear. (She's female in that she's voiced by a woman - it's not like any of the stitchpunks have genitals.) And finally 8 (Fred Tatasciore) is the group's oversized-brute who maintains 1's authority.
Together this group must survive the attacks of the remaining computer controlled "beasts" that are constantly hunting them.
"9" is not very heavy on plot, character, or themes. Each of the stitchpunks is only loosely defined and thus mostly reminiscent of the persona of the actor providing the voice. Thus 9 might as well be Frodo from "Lord of the Rings," 5 is the goofy man-child of Reilly's previous films, and 6 is the nutjob Glover has made a career perfecting. In this fashion "9" is almost akin to a Dreamworks computer animated film. The writer and director don't bother creating characters. They just insert celebrity caricatures and expect us to care.
If "9" was a live film with humans as the various characters then this depth issue might not be as much of a problem. Perhaps an elegant, cool action picture could have been made from this premise. But "9" is computer generated. And it only further confirms a thesis I've been developing since I reviewed "Kung Fu Panda": action films that are computer generated do not work. Unless the filmmakers really create some drama and strong characters then computer generated action scenes in and of themselves are not exciting.
This is not the case with live action films. Plenty of action films have ludicrous plots and nonexistent characters. But they work because elegant, creative action sequences are a virtue in and of themselves. They're like watching a ballet or dance routine. But could you get any thrill out of seeing a computer animated ballet? I thought not.
Where the film does succeed is in the quality and richness of its visuals. The picture continually presents some of the best non-Pixar animation we've seen in years.
But that's really just not enough anymore. Sure, it looks great, but so what? Who goes to a movie just to look at pretty pictures? It's like going to see "Transformers 2" because of the quality of the special effects. Who does that? And what's the matter with them that they don't have better things to do with their time than salivate over computer animation?
With "9" Director/co-writer Shane Acker proves that he's about halfway there. He can create great animation and effective scenes. Now he just needs a meaningful story to tell. Maybe he'll be more successful with his next film and give us something more original than a post-apocalyptic sock puppet action flick.
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