The new film 9, an animated post-apocalyptic doodad, is set amongst the scattered ashes and rubble of a great war waged between man and machine. All that remains of humanity are a set of nine dolls that look like tiny potato sacks with hands and feet. Thanks to some wild contraption dreamt up by a scientist, these nine dolls were fitted with souls. Amongst ash, rubble, and corpses, they are the impossibly fragile last thumbprints of the world of humans; empty sacks fitted with metaphysics.
The film, directed by Shane Acker and expanded from his Oscar-nominated short, opens with the awakening of a voiceless heap named 9 who carries a small, mysterious device with him. Walking amongst the dead, 9 bumps into 2 (Martin Landau), an inventor doll who retrofits him with Elijah Woods' voice. A quick friendship is born, but in a breathless rush, they are attacked by a screeching, metallic quadruped who takes 2 and the small device back to his lair, leaving 9 to search for his "stitchpunk" brethren. Article continues below
The "beasts," as one doll refers to them, are sparse in number and localized in a foreboding factory in the distance. In one of the film's numerous heavy-handed tirades pitting fear against hope (familiar?), 9 finds himself in the realm of 1 (Christopher Plummer), the empirical lord of the dolls, demanding they go rescue 2 from the beast's sanctum while the cantankerous leader insists he's already dead. Not to be dissuaded, 9 strikes out with the tinkering 5 (John C. Reilly) only to find 2 being held captive in a rusty birdcage while the beast circles and corners all three of them.
The boys are rescued (naturally) by 7 (Jennifer Connelly), a warrior with the skull of a bird used as armor. Her appearance is coincidental but then so is the thoughtless curiosity that leads 9 to attach the small device to a corresponding outlet that shoots out a green ray that takes 2's soul and awakens a giant monster machine that looks like an armored octopus with one huge red eye. Able to create its own beasts, the red eye sets out to capture the souls of the dolls so that it may learn the importance of all things spiritual.
What may be entertaining and persuasive in an 11-minute short doesn't always translate when the weight of the soul rests on it. Shepherded by producers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov, this visually enticing, clunky, and needlessly baroque piece of Armageddon works best when it stays away from transcendental speculation. Expectedly, Acker's inventiveness is best showcased when he gets to bring out the villainous gadgets -- the cobra-bot that uses a dead doll for bait is sincerely petrifying -- but his attempts to communicate individuality and resurrected humanity feel forced and unconvincing.
In its first half, 9 pulls you in with the promise of discovery and the thrill of action but its endgame becomes muddier as it trudges along. Projected by the data-collecting 3 and 4, we find out that the machines were once good but corrupted by man's fear of the unknown. 9's crafty concept feels similarly warped by a need for catharsis, worn structure, and mindless intimations towards the beyond.