9 (review)

After the Rise of the Victorian Machines

We should have expected this from the first CGI movie from Focus Features, the independent boutique mini studio: 9 is more arthouse animation than Saturday-morning cartoon, a mysterious conundrum of a film that is beautifully grim to behold and actually sort of massively depressing by the time it’s over… but in a good way. Like how someone once said that “sad is happy for deep people.” The joys of 9 are in contemplating its curious merging of the deeply cynical and the unflaggingly optimistic, and in rejoicing in all the history of science fiction from both print and screen that has been lovingly poured into the wondrous creamy hardness of its visuals.
Imagine if Jules Verne wrote a movie for Pixar, if that steampunk visionary looked forward from his perch in the late Victorian age to a Great War in his near future that didn’t pause for twenty years to let everyone to catch their breath but instead went apocalyptic. Imagine not a nuclear apocalypse but one the result of a horrific gas: it killed not only all the humans but all the animals and plants, too. But not before the humans could invent sentient machines like something H.G. Wells dreamed while comatose in the Matrix: monstrous tripod warmakers stomping across landscapes furrowed with trenches. And other, more terrible machines, too…

But before we went, we humans — or one of us, at least — also created something apparently far more benign, even enchanting and promising: 9 (the voice of Elijah Wood: Happy Feet, Bobby) is a tiny ragdoll-like being who comes to consciousness in a small lab, bewildered by his own awakening but wildly inquisitive, too, about absolutely everything. There’s a dead man in a white lab coat on the floor; he looks to have been dead a long time. And there’s a thing, an irresistibly shiny buttonlike device that 9 somehow knows is important. So he takes it with him as he ventures out to find the crumbling ruins of a dead city… and a few more beings very much like him.

And that’s when all your notions about what postapocalyptic movies — and CGI animated science fiction — should go the way of, well, the humans here.

Director Shane Acker won a Student Academy Award for the short film this is based on, and he — and his cowriter here, Pamela Pettler (Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride) — have expanded upon that unique vision to create one of the most inventive and most startling debuts of the year. Believe that PG-13 rating, not so much for the intensity of its action and the bleakness of its motifs both visual and thematic, but from a philosophical perspective: this is not a movie to distract and amuse kiddies. In some ways, it’s like Wall-E without the cute little anthropomorphic critter to distract us from the horrors of this world. Oh, sure, 9 and his compatriots — including one charmingly voiced by John C. Reilly (Step Brothers, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story), and others voiced by Crispin Glover (Beowulf, Crispin Glover’s What Is It?), Jennifer Connelly (Inkheart, The Day the Earth Stood Still), Christopher Plummer (Up, Inside Man), and Martin Landau (Hollywood Homicide, The Majestic) — are visually appealing, with their big blinky eyes and soft, squishy bodies that remind us of beloved childhood toys. But there’s a distinct lack of the adorable in their personalities, the disjointedness of which might be considered a flaw if not for… well, no spoilers: What could be seen as a flaw in the film, and likely may be by some, is part and parcel of the delicious oddness of where it’s all going.

I’m not entirely convinced that the secret of 9 — and of 9 and his friends — works in the end. I do love, though, the boldness of it, and how distinctly it diverges from anything we might be expecting. And I do love how it has me still pondering it: not many movies linger like this one does. Which is totally appropriate, as the world which 9 himself moves in is full of not only unanswered questions but unanswerable ones, too. Not the least of which is, Why did the long-gone people do this awful thing to themselves in the first place? Because the possibilities suggested by the very existence of 9 and his friends hint that a rise in human awareness of who we are happened at the precise moment that we acquired the ability to destroy ourselves.

Maybe that’s always the case: our wisdom and our foolishness are in a constant race, and so far the former has managed to stay just ahead of the latter. We’ve seen cinematic speculations about the opposite. 9 may be asking: What happens when it’s a tie? And that’s a very intriguing and very uncomfortable question to consider.

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