Originally published on In Review Online.
Adaptation is the medium of our time. For better or worse, appropriation has devolved from oxymoronic theories of postmodernism into a more practical mode of replication. I keep wondering, specifically with films in mind, when, if ever, this market driven habit of re-mining used material will run aground. The most confounding examples are the films that get remade by the same director. Hideo Nakata’s US remake of his own film, Ring, was probably more lucrative for him and exposed more people to his work, but critically speaking added nothing to the original. The same could be said for Michael Haneke’s arrogant remake of his arrogant film Funny Games—a point-for-point slap in the face that did not expose Haneke to anyone new. (Tempting Naomi Watts digression denied.) But how do we categorize Shane Acker’s remake? Acker’s visionary award winning and Academy Award nominated 11-minute short 9 deservedly wowed everyone with its sensitivity to visual and emotional detail. Bring directors Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch, Wanted) and no-need-for-introduction Tim Burton to the table as producers and somewhere along the line, Acker is convinced to turn his short into a feature length film. Or maybe this was his goal all along. Visually 9 flourishes on the larger canvas, but narratively it languishes under the heavy hand of the script and storybook contrivances.
9 is the lead character in an animated fable about the rise of a different kind of machine. Emblazoned with the numeral 9 on the back of his sock monkey body, he is the product of an innovative scientist and of resources limited by a diminishing and hostile world. His prophetic numeral emblem is, at least on the surface, his identification number within a small but heroic team. Jolted to life in a Frankenstein-like fashion, 9 wakes to an apocalyptic wasteland where his creator is dead. Motivated by unknown forces, he picks up a strange glowing medallion and he strikes out on his own into a land aptly called The Emptiness. Little does he know, but he has eight siblings that came before him. When he stumbles upon 2, his joy in finding a companion does little to lift the dark ambiance and simply accentuates the inherent loneliness of the barren landscape. And no sooner does 9 find a friend than he loses him. Stalked by a much more sinister form of artificial intelligence, referred to as “the beast,” 2 is captured and taken away. Of more importance to the beast is the small medallion that 9 harbored inside his zippered body. The beast snatches the medallion as well as 2 and runs off toward a foreboding smokestack clad castle.
The spectacle in 9 is the absolute breathtaking detail that is given to every square inch of the screen. It is the precision and subtlety that lend sympathy and emotion to these very unlikely heroes. Even before 9 could speak, his physicality gave him personality that supersedes anything Elijah Woods brings his identity. His stitched together burlap skin edges on the freakish, but everything else intones gentleness and vulnerability that is immediately identifiable. The zipper that runs the length of his torso acts more of a pocket than a vital orifice. Open, the zipper pull hangs like genitalia and closed it hangs below his chin like a manmade wattle. The eyes, enclosed in a rigid lens, contain the most delicate and expressive diaphragm apertures that open and close as meaningfully as any human’s eye. Moving away from the most typical character design, their lumpy potato sack form accentuates an anthropomorphic dowdiness. Each one of the ragamuffin team has varying attributes of individuality within the group: 1 has crude metal hands and a belted waist; 2 is tied up with a shoelace; twins 3 and 4 are smaller, hooded and voiceless; 5 is a buttoned and patched warrior; the crazed 6 is pinstriped and mop-topped; 7 is the smooth-skinned female that seems an obvious homage to Princess Mononoke; and 8 is the burly and thuggish Stay Puft Marshmallow Man version of the species. Their vivid tactility moderates the actors’ solid performances. Elijah Wood and Jennifer Connelly bring a humanness to the two leads, 9 and 7, but it is really Christopher Plummer as the ego-driven 1, Martin Landau as the exploratory and aging 2, and John C. Reilly as the timid 5 that accentuate their computer modeled characters with their performances. Crispin Glover plays the rambling 6, but his part is sadly very small.
9 unfortunately takes two minor missteps that diminish the film exponentially specifically with an unfulfilling narrative arc and a confounding over-orchestrated score. The short had an air of mystery and an aura or loneliness and revenge. The feature attempts to flesh out a background, build in an adventure and edge ever-so-close to a love story, but it all feels very forced in a very abbreviated 79 minutes (and God knows 10 of those minutes are probably credits.) The script relies too heavily on convention and reduces these enigmatic characters into ethos that is patronizingly superficial. Acker’s work clearly thinks outside of this box, but the screenplay does not follow. The same could be said about the soundtrack that screams summer action blockbuster. The first full length trailer for 9 had hints of clever contemporary choices for music, employing a song from electronic wunderkinds The Knife and salt of the earth prog rockers Coheed and Cambria. It was a complete tease; 9 uses button-down action/adventure orchestration that is too overpowering.
The medallion contraption that was stolen from 9 was far more potent than imagined. It awakens a maniacal assembly machine that is able to create weapons out of found materials. In the midst of war, it was the ultimate defense, but now that war is over and all the humans are dead, the only adversaries are 9 and his friends. Ironically, they were made by the same hand. Like so many historical examples, the scientist’s greatest invention was used as a tool for power. The aging scientist, seeing his folly, created his smaller and much more delicate machines in his own image under the hope that, even in this brave new world, the meek would be able to inherit the earth. Acker draws from influences that he readily acknowledges, most notably the Quay Brothers and Jan Svankmajer. The quintessential Quay doll head find its way into 9 a couple times, the most memorable in the form of a demon spider machine. The dark and apocalyptic aesthetic is a mirror not only of Svankmajer and the Quays, but an atmosphere that has its origins in films—such as Blade Runner or Se7en—only to be canonized in contemporary sci-fi video games. The look is somewhat ubiquitous, but unique for a film billed as a PG-13 family film like 9. Acker’s visual ingenuity is a force to be reckoned with, but the watered down script and simplistic cause-and-effect plotting of 9 comes across as being micromanaged by industry types—and all poetry is lost to The Emptiness.