9 finally opened yesterday, and manfriend and I showed up among a throng of steampunk fans to catch Shane Acker's feature film debut. And by "throng," I mean "seven other people." And by "steampunk fans," I mean I overheard an audience member asking a friend, "What the hell is steampunk?" Okay, so maybe 9 won't be a runaway commercial success, but with a modest budget of $30 million, it could certainly be profitable to the studio and a major stepping stone for the director. But anyway, enough about boring budgets and studios. Onto the movie!
9 is based on Shane Acker's Academy Award-nominated short film of the same name. The story is set in a dystopic future in which a war with machines has extinguished the human race. You know, like always happens in the future. The only signs of life are a series of tiny rag dolls that scavenge a desolate landscape for usable scrap. These dolls, or "stitchpunks" as Acker calls them, are constantly hiding from the few remaining mechanical beasts. Though the short film has no dialogue, the feature film gives the dolls voices with an impressive cast.
Elijah Wood voices 9, a doll who wakes up in his inventor's workshop with no idea who he is or how he came to be. He eventually stumbles upon 2 (Martin Landau) a seasoned inventor and fighter who, despite his skill, is abducted by one of the machines. 9 recruits his ragdoll siblings 5 (John C. Reilly) and 7 (Jennifer Connelly) for a search and rescue mission, in which the brain behind the machines' uprising is inadvertently awakened.
The visuals of the film are phenomenal. Acker's post-apocalyptic wasteland is intricately and expertly designed, and the presence of the occasional human corpse is appropriately unsettling. Though the animation of the stitchpunks is extremely expressive, the real stars of the show are their mechanical adversaries. In addition to a ferocious robot with a cat skull for a head (also a malevolent presence in the short film), the ragdolls face a snake that stitches its victims into its belly, a flying beast that's half crow and half miniature pteradactyl, and a glowing cocoon-shaped blimp that tracks them from overhead.
Though the premise is extremely creative, the film drags even at its 81-minute runtime. It was exciting and gratifying to see a fully fleshed-out version of the short, but I couldn't help thinking that the film would've been more engaging if it saw some serious editing. Sadly, there's not much of a market for 45 or 50-minute films. Additionally, I felt that the lack of dialogue in the short increased the tension and the emotional investment in the story. Despite the terrific cast, I kept wishing for the ragdolls to communicate silently. That said, 9 is a movie that both adults and children can enjoy (but again, occasional corpses) and is a major showcase for Acker's talent. I'm certainly curious to see what he'll try next.