When I saw the first trailer for 9, I was smitten. I hadn’t seen anything quite as aesthetically alluring in a long time. While 9 no doubt radiates remarkably original imagery, it brings little new to the sci-fi/fantasy realm we haven’t been inundated with many times over.
Initially, 9 establishes a potently foreboding atmosphere lurking beneath perfectly paced intrigue. Why is 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood) the last to wake? Why is the world eerily void of biological life and everything else left in ruins? Who created these mechanical doll creatures and why?
As these questions tug you along, you’ll be treated to an arresting array of clever ways director Shane Acker fuses the characters into the fantastically conceived world of 9, originally realized in his Oscar nominated short film of the same title. These nuggets frequently manifest as cool mechanisms or gadgets that tie directly to the narrative or a character’s persona — a quality often lacking in other eye candy-laden feasts.
And a hearty feast it is as the dramatic visuals extend to the diverse and disturbing creature design. A modest but scary collection of mechanical monsters hunt our heroes as they search for lost friends or quest to retrieve the integral talisman that will unravel their story. Each monstrosity has a chilling method of hunting the protagonists coupled with intimidating animalistic gestures which they use to taunt their prey.
However, this is where, I regret to inform you, the positives end. 9 is unmistakably a visually inventive knockout. Unfortunately, a deep and brooding story remains sunken beneath the visual flair. It pokes up here and there, appropriately subtle and fascinating early on, but is rarely expanded upon and ultimately, much is left dormant or unresolved. Details of the characters’ history, or what instigated their creation, are scarce. Even the story behind the destruction of mankind feels insufficient and vague. Unfortunately, this makes it very hard to care about the protagonists as they get themselves into a blurry multitude of forgettable skirmishes. Sometimes the battles toss out a sweet visceral morsel to chew on, but it’s never enough to save the sequences from being tired and unoriginal. We’ve seen it all before.
Films like Cloverfield benefit from these unsolved mysteries because virtually nothing is explained – and that’s why it’s so scary. We don’t know what is attacking us, or why. But we are in danger and we must do our best to save our loved ones and ourselves. Maintaining a healthy dose of mystery is often a necessary plot device for the genre, and it worked for Cloverfield. 9, on the other hand, does feed us a few tidbits of story, mostly in the form of flashbacks, leading us to believe the trend will continue, adding up to satisfying revelations. Therefore, it feels the story isn’t purposefully light, but an abridged version of something that might otherwise carry a profound message for humanity concerning our abuse of technology. Such a distressing waste for this hopeful masterpiece.
I can and do appreciate dumb films with plots as flimsy as string and just as thick. Heck, I'm one of the few who thinks Michael Bay's Transformers sequel is a gift from the entertainment gods. Yeah, I said it. In the case of 9, there is definitely something deeper skulking under the shrouds, but it never comes out of hiding.
Personally, I am bored by the whole “quest for a sacred talisman” plot that bogs down many a fantasy epic. I was saddened to discover that 9 backs tightly into that corner then proceeds to stack a hefty load of genre clichés and monotonous action scenes on top of a thin plot that I wished would claw its way out of the pile. 9 is an occasionally fun adventure that would prove a great weekend escape for families. It also just might be the most visually captivating film of the last few years. For the older crowd or seasoned movie viewer, it’s an experience you’ve seen a hundred times before and offers little new beyond its mesmerizing exterior.