Monday, January 11, 2010

9 (Relativity Media, Focus Features.Universal, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was 9 — note the numeral, to distinguish it from Nine (the currently playing movie version of the 1980’s stage musical based on Federico Fellini’s 1963 movie Otto è Mezzo, a.k.a. 8 1/2) — a bizarre computer-animated dystopian fantasy that’s basically The Wizard of Oz meets The Matrix, though with some quirky references to other classic (and not-so-classic) films as well. The plot synopsis on the DVD box promises a better film than the one we actually get: “In the final days of humanity, a dedicated scientist gives the spark of life to nine of his creations. The world has turned into an unrecognizable landscape of machines and spare parts, but this group of nine finds that if they band together, their small community might just be able to change the course of history.”

It begins in a decrepit Gothic mansion in which 9 (the characters only have numbers for names) discovers himself and escapes into the big, bad world. He and his brethren (and one sister, 7 — though since there’s no indication that their inventor meant to give them the capacity for sexual reproduction, the motivation for a gender definition is unclear) are mechanical devices, and my initial response to the film was to think of Frankenstein — another Universal production about a humanoid life form created by a scientist. On his way through the world 9 finds himself chased by a mechanical dinosaur, which threatens to eat him and also 2, the similar creature he picks up along the way, and actually does steal a brass-colored medallion which appears to contain the secret of the Numbered Ones’ lives but actually has quite a different story function.

He ends up in a “sanctuary,” modeled after Notre-Dame cathedral (and evoking another film Universal made during its glory years!), where he meets 1, who (almost naturally, given that he’s the first number) has elected himself leader of the group and insists that they have no reason to leave and face the danger of getting outside the sanctuary. But when the mechano-dino-whatsit grabs 2, 9 insists on going after him — and though he rescues 2 and kills the dino-beast, and also recovers several other members of the fraternity the dino was holding hostage, 9 also puts that weird medallion (which he’s been carrying inside himself, opening the zipper on his chest for that purpose and closing it again) into a socket on the wall … only it’s not a wall, it’s a gargantuan electro-mechanical beast with a single fixture in its face resembling the red eye of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey and, by inserting the disc, 9 has brought it back to life and, like the Wicked Witch of the West in the film The Wizard of Oz (though not the book from which it was adapted), it’s worse than the other one was.

From then on the film basically turns into action porn, with just enough exposition to get us from one big set-piece confrontation between Our Little Heroes (and One Little Heroine) and the mega-machine to the next — and it’s only at this point do we get a flashback in which we learn that earth was once ruled by a super-dictator who harnessed all the available technology to keep himself in power. He hired the Scientist (the same one who invented Our Heroes — at least I think it’s supposed to be the same one) to build the ultimate machine that could run the society for them (sort of like E. M. Forster’s marvelous story “The Machine Stops,” in which future humanity becomes so reliant on its machines people literally lose the ability to take care of themselves — and have to regain that in a hurry once the machines start breaking down because they’ve worn out beyond their built-in capacity for self-repair) — only the machines rebel and, unlike the ones in The Matrix (who at least had to keep people alive because we had become their energy source), the rebel machines here let out a toxic green gas that kills off all non-mechanical life on earth and leave only the Scientist’s nine charming little animate mannequins in the way of their total domination.

The film ends uncertainly — 9 triumphs over the horrid machine he set free but at the cost of 2, who dies in the struggle, and the fate of Our Little Heroes (or at least the ones who are left) remains in doubt since all the other machines from hell are still out there — and 9 ultimately counts as one of those movies that had the potential to be much better than it is. The resemblances to other movies extend to the voice castings as well — 9 is voiced by Elijah Wood, who as Frodo Baggins in the three Lord of the Rings movies learned something about how to play a character who’s on a long-distance quest to save his world and his people from a merciless adversary — and the serial-like succession of vivid action scenes interspersed with brief bits of exposition just to get us from one to the next gets wearing after a while.

Also there’s a fundamental problem with using animation to tell a story this dark — the figures almost have to be cuddly and cute (after all, a large part of the income for a film like this is selling toys of the characters), but their cuddliness and cuteness weighs against the themes of the piece, and that’s especially true of computer-animation figures: I almost wish the filmmakers, director Shane Acker and writer Pamela Pettler, had gone with drawn animation instead because they could have made both the figures and the backgrounds more Gothic and therefore better suited to this tale. Still, I have a lot of respect for any movie that pushes so far against the boundaries of what’s supposed to be possible in a big-ticket blockbuster these days as 9 does, and if only for the depth of both theme and characterization I’ll forgive 9 for its fallback on relentless action instead of a more careful sort of plotting that would have done more justice to the basic situation.