A Movie Review of 9 (2009): Rag Dolls and Robots at the End of the World
A recurring complaint that I've read in film reviews--particularly of films that rely heavily on special effects--is the one of "style over substance". While this is a valid complaint, I find it irritating at times because of its rote usage by bored film critics who overlook the instances where a film's style is its substance. After all, cinema is an inherently visual medium; thus, the possibility that a filmmaker can tell a compelling story by emphasizing images and only using minimal dialog (or no dialog at all) should be part of a film critic's range of considerations. Not every film has to provide Shakespeare-caliber soliloquies in its script in order to be a bold and intelligent film. Such is the case of 9, and 2009 CGI animated movie that was directed by Shane Acker and produced by Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov.
9 is a science fiction fantasy film that takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting. It's short on complex dialog but long on symbolism and metaphor--some obvious, others not so much. It's also quite bold in that it depicts the human race as being unable to survive a doomsday of its own making and a world that will eventually go on without us. That's pretty grim stuff for a film that's essentially about anthropomorphic rag dolls. Read on for my full review.
9 begins as a small, sentient rag doll (voiced by Elijah Wood) wakes up in a disheveled room with a dead body on the floor. The only clue to the doll's identity is the number 9 written on his back. 9 leaves the room to find a surrounding city in shambles, with the only inhabitants being other rag dolls like him--each with numbers on their backs--and B.R.A.I.N., an multi-limbed cyclopean machine that is determined to remake the world in its own mechanical image.
Given its main premise, 9 would seem to fall into the same humans-versus-machines subgenre of sci-fi as the Terminator and Matrix franchises. Yet that is not completely accurate because humans are almost completely absent in 9; the few that appear in the film are only seen through archived film footage that give the rag dolls a better idea of who and what came before them. The rag dolls are orphans: their creator left them behind a long time ago to fend for themselves, and the exact circumstances that necessitated their creation has long been forgotten. The muted despair over dolls' unclear sense of identity and purpose permeates the story.
The dolls' search for meaning in a barren landscape that was overrun by corrupted technology bears many thematic and stylistic similarities to films such as Dark City, A.I., and Tron: Legacy, as well as to Nintendo Wii's Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon video game. To put a finer point on it, 9 is a richer, bleaker counterpart to Pixar's Wall-E, although I'm not sure which is scarier: a post-apocalyptic world with no human survivors, or a post-apocalyptic world where the only human survivors are dimwitted, corporate-controlled couch potatoes.
Even though 9 has a fantastic voice cast that consists of Wood, Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, John C. Reilly, Jennifer Connelly and Crispin Glover, the simple dialog between the characters only tells part of the story. The rest of the tale unfolds in the ruins of human civilization that's littered with many recognizable, broken artifacts. The movie appears to take place in an alternate world where doomsday happened somewhere during the 1930s, and that the world came to an end not in a ball of nuclear flame but in a mist of toxic gas spread by B.R.A.I.N. Placing this alternate world's end during the advent of mechanized warfare gives 9 a chilling feel, an unsettling hint that the mass production of technology and mass extinction are inseparable no matter what decade or century it is.
Further adding to the story's eeriness is the war machines designed by B.R.A.I.N.: they are modeled after organic forms (and some even have organic parts, such as bones) but they warp the organic into something frighteningly unnatural, suggesting that technology’s corruption of life is inevitable. In contrast, the burlap skins of the rag dolls give them a more natural feel, as do their personalities. The revelation of where the dolls' personalities come from and why they are self-aware at all provides a touching conclusion for such a nightmarish and surreal scenario.
Essentially, 9 is a story about a man who sacrifices his soul to restore the earth to being a vibrant source of life, even if the human race is far beyond saving. That may be a difficult premise for many to comprehend and accept (let alone watch as a feature-length movie), but I found 9 to be a beautiful, eloquent and bittersweet dieselpunk fairy tale.