In Shane Acker's visually alluring but hollow animated film 9, the apocalypse has come and gone, leaving a scorched landscape, smoldering ruins and a crew of mechanical beasts in charge. Mankind is no more, and this ought to be troubling, until you consider the usual sort we see saving the world onscreen and realize it's a relief not to have to worry about the plight of yet another plucky, attractive human being with a tendency to throw him- or herself in the way of some soulless yet savage machine.
Instead of a Shia LaBeouf or a Christian Bale, 9 gives us nine puppet-like dolls as stand-ins for humanity, manufactured by the same scientist whose invention of a giant "brain" machine lead to the ruin of man. The filmmakers refer to these as "stitchpunk creations," but in the interest of plain English, we're opting for the term doll. Hand-stitched from either burlap or canvas, the dolls have smooth, rounded heads and protuberant eyes; they look like early aviators. They are both homespun and spooky, like the kind of child's toy that might be purchased at an all-organic boutique and cause nightmares until it is ultimately whisked off to Goodwill.
Like Coraline, 9 opens with a creepy sewing scene as the mad and soon-to-be-dead scientist puts the finishing touches on Number 9, the last of his creations. The dolls are distinguishable by the numbers stamped on their backs and the various notions that adorn them. Wise Number 2 (voiced by Martin Landau) laces up like a corset. Number 5 (John C. Reilly), who is cuddly, sweet and needs ego-boosting, is missing an eye and wears a lone button on his chest, kind of like Don Freeman's beloved bear Corduroy. Number 6 is loopy, creative and imprisoned by his own mind, so naturally he wears vertical stripes and is voiced by Crispin Glover. There is a ferocious lady warrior, Number 7 (Jennifer Connelly), who wears bone earrings and a helmet made from a skull. As for Number 9 (Elijah Wood), he's not only the last and most significant of the dolls, but he's the most fashion-forward too, with a heavy zipper up his middle.
There's friction in the doll community. Number 1 (Christopher Plummer) is a cautious, shriveled type, who rules the gang from atop a throne in the remains of a former church and prefers to hide from the mechanical beasts. Given that the dolls are about eight inches tall and the mechanical beasts appear to be the size of dinosaurs or giant arachnids, this seems rational enough. The dolls have no needs (not for air, food or fuel, although they find an occasional lightbulb useful) and neither do the machines, so you'd think everyone could go to their respective corners and mind their own business while enjoying the stinking remains of human society. Instead, the dolls, led by Number 9, get roped into fighting mankind's last battle for them by trying to take down the machines. What the point of such an effort is remains unclear. Even the characters are confused. "What happens now?" one asks at the end. "I'm not sure," says another.
Acker made a short film called 9 when he was in graduate school. Nominated for an Academy Award in 2006, it brought Acker admirers and eager mentors, including Tim Burton and Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov, two of the producers of the feature-length version. They saw something special in that short film, and Acker was encouraged to expand on it. The results are still on the skimpy side the film is only 79 min. and while reminiscent of Coraline's playful weirdness and Wall-E's plotline, lack the power of either. The script by Pamela Pettler, who also worked on Burton's Corpse Bride script, doesn't support Acker's ambition for profundity. Unless this is your very first postapocalyptic story, a line like the one Number 2 delivers "Technology has been the ruin of us" is more likely to induce an eye roll than anything else. In movies, our technology is so often the ruin of us. We got that message from Stanley Kubrick way back when, and we get it now. But couldn't filmmakers let something else ruin us for a change? Even the apocalypse needs variety.