Occasionally, and just occasionally, one will come across a movie where the visuals are so appealing, so astounding, so utterly fantastic that they are able to carry a film where the plot is at best half-conveyed, and more likely not fully conceived. 9 (2009), being released to Blu-ray this week, is just such a film, and is worth checking out in high definition for its wondrous look if for nothing else.
Directed and with a story by Shane Acker – who initially made a short of the same name for his UCLA thesis project – 9 is 3D computer-generated animation at its finest. The film, which was produced by Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov amongst others, takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, one that saw its apocalypse in, as is stated in some of the extras included with the Blu-ray, something of a 1920s or 1930s vision of the future. A mechanical age future, if you will. The evil machines – and there are evil machines – are steel-looking with exposed rivets and rather angular.
The basic story – and it really only is ever a basic story – revolves around a little rag doll (voiced by Elijah Wood) with the number "9" on his back coming to life and trying to figure out what exactly this world he's in is all about. He quickly meets others like him, including the officious 1 (Christopher Plummer); wise, if perhaps a little off-kilter, 2 (Martin Landau); and rather simple 5 (John C. Reilly). 9 quickly learns that his world has suffered a massive amount of death and destruction and that outside of a mechanical beast that has kidnapped 2, the rag dolls may all be alone.
Over the course of the film, 9 opts to try to rescue 2 and only makes things a whole lot worse before they wondrously get better by the end of the film (though not without some of his compatriots meeting their end). 9 also manages to find an answer to the only question that really holds the viewers' interest in any way – what exactly happened to the world in which they live.
Watching 9 one gets the sense that Acker knows everything about this world he's created, but has trouble – or maybe it's Pamela Pettler's screenplay that has the trouble – conveying what he knows. The world itself is a fascinating place – as are the dolls – but the audience is never let in on it. Instead, we are always forced to watch the goings-on from a distance and are not accepted into the fold.
The visuals are almost enough to have that make no difference. There is not a single piece of a single frame of the film where Acker's vision isn't coming through perfectly. Certainly on Blu-ray – not having seen the film in the theater I cannot attest to how it looked there – every crosshatched piece of 9's burlap comes through in exquisite detail. The colors are rich, the backgrounds beautifully drawn and rendered, and everything down to the smallest speck of dirt looks perfect. The sound is less good. While everything is crisp and the bass is full, one will have to sit with their remote in hand as dialogue plays out far more quietly than effects.
The Blu-ray does come with several special features. Chief among these is the original 9 short that the feature film is based on. The piece definitely provides the audience a sense of exactly where Acker started out and how his ideas (and the animation) grew (Acker and animation director Joe Ksander provide an optional commentary track for this as well). Two of the other special features, "9 – The Long and the Short of It" and "The Look of 9," help provide additional details about how the short became a feature, the first as a more traditional behind-the-scenes piece of how the film came together and the second more of a look at how the visual effects were achieved. There is also a piece included in which Acker gives a tour of the animation studio, explaining which areas did what work for the film. There is also a piece entitled "Acting Out" which shows how animators film themselves modeling character actions in order to better create a lifelike piece. Combined, all of these pieces are interesting, but also a little disheartening — they leave the viewer with the definite sense that there was more to the story and to the idea than what they were able to capture in the final print. The Blu-ray also includes a feature commentary with Acker, Ksander, Ryan O'Loughlin (head of story), and Nick Kenway (editor), as well as deleted scenes.
9 is an incredibly appealing film, one that explores a new, different, and strange version of our own world. What 9 fails to do, however, is tell a compelling story. Perhaps that was sacrificed in an effort to spend more time on the look and feel of the piece. While that trade-off may have resulted in a film which is awe-inspiring in its look, it is yawn-inspiring in its story.