“9” is Science Fiction by the Numbers – 2 popcorns

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By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

The review of director Shane Acker’s “9” you really want to read is preferably rendered by a bright, precocious adolescent who, after attending Carnegie Mellon, hopes to excel in an occupation for which there is yet no name. He or she could condescendingly inform why this animated bit of post-apocalyptic sci-fi is either “awesome” or “just so puerile.”

But just in case such an authority on matters cutting edge is nowhere to be found in or around your pre-apocalyptic dwelling, kindly consider this view from among the great unwashed. And do please accept that it will be delivered neither by Facebook nor Twitter, or by blog or text message either. Yet rather, in a series of paragraphs known as an essay.

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In other words, a critique purveyed by an older arrogance but still, you’ll be happy to know, every bit as clueless. Gosh knows there’s enough abstract conjecture purveyed in this eyeful of artistic, next rung animation for several generations to lose themselves. But while sometimes that’s good, too often it only points to the movie’s inherent paradox.

Based on Mr. Acker’s 2005, Oscar-nominated short film by the same name, expanded to feature length proportions with the help of co-writers Pamela Pettler and Ben Gluck, the big new “9” presents a problem of focus. While the non-stop action might appeal to the under eleven set, its PG-13 rating should rightfully prevent them from viewing it.
It is a very violent world in which we meet the title character.

Armageddon or not, there are still some pretty noisy mechanical monsters tossing their weight around, looking to kill whatever may have been spared in the cataclysmic war between man and machine. Suddenly awakened in uncompleted condition, it seems 9 fits in neither category.

Rag doll in appearance, his exterior made of burlap, thread and metal can eyes, he is part android, part robot and, we surmise, essence of human. Stumbling around the ruins that resulted at just about the same time of his creation, he knows not his identity or purpose. Only a 9 on his back offers a hint. Luckily, in his wanderings he soon meets 2.

A kindly philosopher sort voiced by Martin Landau, 2 first notices that his neophyte colleague cannot talk. Sorting through some salvage, there it is…a voice box. He takes the liberty of un-zippering his new pal’s front, inserts the part and, voila, 9 speaks…just like Elijah Wood. Landau’s wise 2 updates 9.

But it isn’t easy considering the continuous cacophony and need to defend themselves against the Beast, a red-eyed remnant of the victors. Thus it appears that, just as in the beginning, in the end, too, there is chaos. But 2 seems so hopeful. Skip a few frames; 9 meets other survivors, some not quite so optimistic.

The ragtag group is led, appropriately enough, by 1, verbalized with gloom and doom by Christopher Plummer. Others holed up under his dominion include a rather silly but sweet 5, voiced by John C. Reilly; the oafish 8 (Fred Tatasciore), always ready to do 1’s bidding; and the prophetic, creative 6 (Crispin Glover). Then there’s 7, the brave warrior.

It isn’t lost on 9 that 7, articulated by Jennifer Connelly, is a woman. In turn, she recognizes a winning courage and grace in him. Too bad that, through a zealous imprudence regarding the life giving “talisman” he has found, a great monster capable of making new monsters is stirred. The evil metal entities mercilessly attack.

Dashing across the landscape, the rag doll rebels fight, flee and hide ad nauseam, their numbers sadly challenged as they go. And though while on the run the story of how they came to be is ultimately related, the repetitious pattern becomes tiresome. Granted, the battle scenes are resplendent with accomplishments in animation. But it’s all rhythm.

Contemplative adults require a little melody tossed in with the beat, a bit of ebb to balance the flow. Unfortunately, the characters in “9” rarely have the luxury of pausing to engagingly mull matters. And if they did, it might be a turn-off for those younger, explosion-and-noise connoisseurs who shouldn’t be in the theatre in the first place.

Still, despite all the flotsam and jetsam demonstrating over and over the dangers of kinetic energy, director Acker does impart his share of sci-fi metaphors. But, fittingly enough for a film produced under Tim Burton’s aegis, it is as if they are first randomly shaken in a beaker and then only delivered with tangential mystique.

Therefore, if there is anything novel here regarding the eternal man vs. machine debate, it may be too cryptically woven into the film’s fabric to decipher. While the dark visuals and ingenious, contrasting textures provide a glimpse into this genus of animation christened ‘stitch punk,’ for those of us over 14 “9” doesn’t totally figure.

9,” rated PG-13, is a Focus Features release directed by Shane Acker and stars the voices of Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly and John C. Reilly. Running time: 79 minutes


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