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9 is a movie in the vein of Bioshock, which of course, isn’t a movie at all. Were it a game, like Bioshock, it would almost certainly be one of the best story-driven video games ever made. Maybe towards an Xbox is the direction creator Shane Acker should have gone with this, when adapting his short film into a feature length movie. Even the most carefully constructed video game plot is far more forgiving than film, since the entire point of a good game's story is to construct a world in which the player fills in the blanks themselves. Without an Xbox controller to let me fill in those blanks, 9 feels as if it’s been stretched too thin.
Most obviously missing is a sense of scale. The story starts when an odd and inexplicably intelligent doll awakens for the first time on the floor of a seemingly abandoned laboratory. On his back someone has painted the number “9” and it’s by that name which we’ll know him for the rest of the film. 9 is roughly the size of a small rodent and without pausing to figure out the who, what, and where of his situation he stumbles out into the big wild world. In the blink of an eye 9 somehow gets from the window of a tall apartment to a rubble-strewn street below, a journey which should have taken a creature of his size days. Later he’ll travel across the entire city, on an epic mission to a mysterious factory, a vast journey which should have taken him about a month traveling on foot. 9 pulls it off before sunset. Acker’s film seems to go out of its way to avoid being epic.
Instead it’s a quick jaunt through a post-apocalyptic world where a series of tiny numbered dolls seem to be the only thing left of the once great human civilization. Except that is, for the monsters; mechanical creatures which stalk the wasteland and occasionally carry one of them off. The world itself is fantastically detailed, but again, missing any sense of scale. Seen from the perspective of these tiny, ignorant creatures even the most mundane household appliance should seem like a minor mountain. At best it feels like we’re peering inside a toy box.
9 just never connects. Maybe it’s the voice work, which is merely adequate. Elijah Wood for instance voices 9 and sounds exactly like Elijah Wood instead of a tiny robot speaking through a miniature bullhorn. Or maybe it’s the film’s rushed and patently silly resolution, full of a lot of vague mumbo jumbo about the transference of souls, which doesn’t seem to fit the rusted and real technological feel of the film and worse, dulls some of the movies more adult, sharp edges.
Or maybe I’m being too hard on 9. Though lacking in scale the movie’s look is consistently impressive and the story, though stretched too thin, is fairly creative. Acker’s film has no lack of imagination, it simply needs more vision. 9 at least attempts intelligent, adult-oriented animation and does it with its own style. As a beginning, it shows promise. Keep an eye out for whatever Shane Acker does next, somewhere inside him there might still be the next Tim Burton.