Developed from Shane Acker’s Oscar nominated short of the same name, and produced by the visionary Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov (Director of ‘Day Watch’ and ‘Wanted’), the post-apocalyptic ‘9’ (with its evocative trailer) promised great things, but disappointed many critics and cinema goers alike. Now with the Blu-ray having recently been released we re-examine the films successes and short-comings and find out if it really deserved such a viscous slamming, the first time around.
Set a short while after the war that destroyed mankind, ‘9’ is the story of a small band of numbered miniature people; created by a scientist out of small sacks, tin, and moulded copper, among other things; that have to battle for survival in a world where the machines that destroyed their former creators rule supreme. The story focuses on the group’s newest member, the wilful 9 (Elijah Wood, Lord Of The Rings), who inadvertently restarts the very machine that ended life for all the humans (something that the other members of the group are less than thrilled about, as it’s bound to make their machine-avoiding-dependant survival much more difficult).
That is the general premise, with one or two of the group being kidnapped or presumed dead several times throughout the picture, and the group being split into two different factions; those who ally with 9 and wish to fight the machine and rescue their friends, or those who follow 1 (Christopher Plummer, The Sound Of Music) and instantly move on, assuming that any lost friends are dead and cannot be helped, and that the group must hide in order to survive.
The group (or at least certain members of it) are also on a quest to decipher a mystical symbol that may just hold the key to unravelling the mystery behind the true fate of the human race, their own creation, just how them came to exist and what their purpose is, as well as a possible solution for defeating the most brutal machine of all; an artificially intelligent machine that creates other machines in its own image, and is hell bent on destruction (kind of ‘9’s’ version of Skynet from The Terminator).
The world in which it is set, is a desolate and barren place in which not a single living thing survives, and from the few clips that the film’s trailer showed it appeared to be a wide and open place that, despite being littered with the remnants of a once great civilization, looked vast and unforgiving (akin with the futuristic destruction of The Road, or The Postman), and while it may be unforgiving to the features heroes, it is anything but vast; actually feeling rather closed off and claustrophobic at times in spite of the great distances the characters obviously travel.
The characters themselves are also rather undefined and lacking in depth; each of the main group having only a single facet to their personality; although there is reason behind that, and it is explained in some of cinemas worst revelations, as anyone who watches will instantly know what is going to be revealed from the beginning of the film, and simply presume that they are supposed to know. It is also very difficult to truly care for the characters, given the fact that the human race is already extinct by the film’s opening, and the fact they are so single-minded, and largely pointless.
Having said that, it is also true that ‘9’ isn’t boring, because the flashbacks showing the destruction of humanity (arguably the best thing about the film, despite the slightly less than perfect animation of the people) are brilliant, and ultimately pretty plausible, the action scenes are large in scope yet never too fast or expansive, and you really will wonder just how a band of small sacks can defeat a machine that managed to wipe out every human on the planet; meaning that it does provide a rather engaging watch, at least until it’s final act, which has proved a massive let down for almost everyone that has seen it, as it makes next to no sense at all (and will even take at least two viewings and a listen to the audio commentary to even slightly comprehend).
One thing that cannot be quaffed at however is the movie’s animation, as it is a testament to Acker’s work, and perfectly showcases his vision like only this kind of CGI could; the few expansive shots that are seen of the destroyed world look simply fantastic, and the occasional rotting corpse that litters the streets gives the film a rather solemn feeling in that moment. Likewise the expressiveness of the main characters camera lens eyes and the cold, and disturbingly animal/human, nature of some of the machines all add volumes to their characters, and everything from the tiniest stitches on the small sacks to small dust particles has been well represented.
Overall it’s a rather confusing watch; despite having a small and closed off feeling, Acker’s world is brilliantly crafted and wonderfully dark (it’s no surprise that it was nominated for an Oscar in the Art category), as are all of his characters, in spite of their one-note nature, which is actually explained by the story. The animation is also brilliant and the action scenes are fun, and despite not really caring about the puppets as if they were people the film is still engaging enough to make viewers want to know what happened to them. The short scenes in which the destruction of humanity is properly explained are scarily real, and excellently crafted, and while it may not be a film for children that scare especially easy, most kids are sure to take something positive away from it (even if the ending is completely unexplainable, and will put most grown-ups off the movie for good). An intriguing film with a solid voice cast (Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly, Martin Landau, Christopher Plummer etc.) that deserves more than one watch, and is brilliant for its meticulously crafted, dark, world alone, but let down somewhat by a rather simple story, and terrible ending.
Unlike the film’s ending, its 1080p picture is anything but difficult to process; its palette, though mostly dark, does contain some shockingly vibrant colours (most notably the deep, and oddly fear-invoking, red of the machine’s eye, but also colours such as the alien like green that occasionally shoots from the mysterious symbol) which all contrast perfectly, breathing a huge spark of life into the picture with every perfectly rendered hue.
Likewise the more earthly colours of the sacks, or ground, are natural and well represented, and blacks are nothing if not perfect, as is the film’s fine detail; which has clearly been given a huge amount of care, with every stitch, hair, or tiny nick in a blade on a pair of scissors, clearly visible from a mile off.
The film also does well from a technical viewpoint; as there’s no need for any edge enhancement, and no evidence of any crush, artifacing or noise; however the pickiest of viewers may spot some minor aliasing around the machine at one point (although it is so minor that even the majority of videophiles will either miss it, or be willing to forgive it).
A stunning picture that can in no way disappoint anybody that sees it, and can easily rival the latest and greatest Pixar transfers (but will probably still prove less popular due to the movie’s dark colour palette) in terms of technical marvel and level of fine detail, and fits all of the criteria for a true demo quality disc, but then it should; being an animation, and can’t really be classified fairly alongside live-action movies.
The 5.1 DTS HD-Master Audio soundtrack for ‘9’ is almost as impressive as its picture, with constant and aggressive action from all speakers (including the rear channels), that makes for a rich and enveloping environment littered with smooth pans, precise directionality, and the most impressive bass you are ever likely to hear in a children’s film; it’s more than forceful, extremely resonant, and despite its frequent use, likely to really get viewers heart’s pumping.
Other effects are also solid, but dialogue could be better, as its low prioritization does mean that some fairly insignificant lines get muffled and lost during the chaos of some of the more fierce action scenes. However, this is still a very good track that is fully immersive, scarily realistic, and more than worthy of a listen because of its impressive bass alone.
‘9’ comes to Blu-ray with a pleasantly pleasing array of extras that includes an audio commentary (with Shane Acker, the film’s editor, and the animation director) which is surprisingly informative, and discusses everything from the creation of the characters and their motivations, to the world in which they reside, and the movies visuals and atmosphere.
There’s also a behind the scenes featurette; (called The Long And Short Of It) that chronicles the development of the film from its original 11 minute short to feature length picture, and includes interviews with everyone from Elijah Wood and Martin Landau, to Tim Burton; a short in which Shane Acker provides brief tours of the many departments that worked on the film (which is all the more amazing when considering that it was Acker alone who created the original short); and another (appropriately called ‘The Look Of ‘9’’) that looks at the character design, the history and tone of the film, and the process behind creating a world after war.
Other than that there is a collection of five deleted scenes (although they’re fairly boring, and only play out as animated storyboards with poorly edited voice work as the final animation was never completed), the original short (with optional commentary) upon which the film was based, and according to many critics is far superior to its successor (children are less inclined to agree and prefer the new chatty movie over the original silent film), and U-Control; a picture-in-picture track that features cast and crew interviews, director’s commentary, storyboards, production stills, candid footage of the actors recording sessions and more (and doesn’t even fall into the trap of repeating information that can be found elsewhere on the disc).
Overall it’s a brilliant collection of extras that goes into a huge amount of detail about pretty much every aspect of the film’s production, and includes interviews or commentaries from every major player involved with the movie. The features are all nicely broken up, and thankfully never repeat any information, and are interesting enough to even appeal to viewers that weren’t overly impressed with the film to begin with.
The Bottom Line:
Looking back ‘9’ is neither a good film, nor a bad, and suffers greatly from lacking a clear audience; it’s a film about a bunch of puppets made out of sacks that have a bit of a disagreement with a couple of silent machines, making it clearly a kids film, but then it’s so dark and depressing (you don’t normally get corpses in children’s movies), and has some very adult themes (the end of civilization being brought about by the blind pursuit of science, war, and industry), which make it seem more like a grown up animation; and never really satisfies anyone. The story is rather thin, and even though there’s a reason for it, the fact that the characters have very single-minded personalities does grate somewhat, but not as much as the largely incomprehensible ending scene, which is liable to put most viewers off rewatching the movie.
However, there’s no denying that the animation of ‘9’ looks fantastic, as does the picture quality, and the brilliantly powerful audio track sounds amazing, and despite all of its story problems ‘9’ still stays interesting throughout, having some fun action scenes, and a wonderful vision of humanities destruction, and should appeal to any child who likes their films a little ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ (just don’t expect ‘9’ to be anywhere near as captivating or brilliant).
It comes laden with some pretty extensive, and really rather good, features that are sure to explain just about every aspect of production possible, and provide a good deal more insight into the choices that got ‘9’ to where it is today; from an Oscar Nominated Short into an average animation film that couldn’t live up to its impressive trailer. Unless you go gooey over apocalyptic animation, this one’s more of a rental film; most kids would be more easily satisfied by watching Pixar’s Up, and most adults would prefer something with a little more consistency.