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HAL Freezes Over

MOVIE REVIEW
9 (2009)

FP-9-017R
Focus Features

In these days of bloated budgets and excessive running times, a movie that clocks in at 79 minutes should be a cause for celebration. In the case of Shane Acker’s “9,” it’s actually the opposite – a cause for consternation and the bemoaning of a missed opportunity. Sadly, every bit of uniqueness found in Mr. Acker’s animated vision of a ravaged, post-apocalyptic Earth populated solely by sentient rag dolls is counterbalanced by the failure of his collaboration with screenwriter Pamela Pettler. Rarely has so much imagination been poured into one facet of a film at the expense of another.

The underwritten narrative centers on 9 (Elijah Wood), who – with woolly skin, buttons for eyes and a zipper running down his front – is the last of nine stitched-together dolls that together comprise the last hope earthly beings have for fighting the man-made machines that have seized control of the planet and murdered its population. He convinces his cohorts – used to simply running and hiding – to actively seek the destruction of their antagonists. They navigate through a world strewn with rubble, burned-out buildings and clouds of overbearing dust, on a mission to survive and reclaim the planet for the living.

In tone and appearance, “9” befits a label devoted to discerning adult fare such as Focus Features. A feature-length version of Mr. Acker’s Oscar-nominated short from 2005, it earns every bit of its PG-13 for “violence and scary images.” With actions scenes rife with chaotic explosions, a grim gray setting bereft of hope and the frequent sudden appearance of ferocious mechanical beasts seen from low angles, Mr. Acker creates a thrall of misery that hangs over the proceedings. Infused with elements of Gothic horror in 9’s haunting back story, the film also boasts the deadened scorched-earth appeal of classic dystopian fiction.

Still, Mr. Acker and Ms. Pettler have not done enough to pad things out in this conversion to the longer feature form. The film largely fails to transcend the superficial details of its plot, which serves as little more than a rote, extended chase sequence that avoids any larger exploration of the ways 9 and his cohorts survive amid such destruction. The narrative never delves beneath the surface of the running, hiding and repeated confrontations, the novelty of which wears thin fast. Only in one scene, in which the characters hold a celebration as an old recording of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” plays, does the filmmaker pause to generate the sort of austere reflective beauty than any sort of science-fiction cautionary tale requires for it to resonate. Otherwise – as the end credits roll – “9” provokes little more than a halfhearted shrug.

9

Opens on Sept. 9 in the United States and on Oct. 30 in Britain.

Directed by Shane Acker; written by Pamela Pettler, based on a story by Mr. Acker; animation director, Joe Ksander; director of photography, Kevin R. Adams; edited by Nick Kenway; music by Deborah Lurie, with themes by Danny Elfman; production designers, Robert J. St. Pierre and Fred Warter; produced by Jim Lemley, Tim Burton, Timur Bekmambetov and Dana Ginsburg; released by Focus Features. Running time: 1 hour 28 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A.

WITH THE VOICES OF: Christopher Plummer (1), Martin Landau (2), John C. Reilly (5), Crispin Glover (6), Jennifer Connelly (7), Fred Tatasciore (8/Radio Announcer), Elijah Wood (9), Alan Oppenheimer (Scientist), Tom Kane (Dictator) and Helen Wilson (Newscaster).

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