Relying largely on audience patience, the lack of narrative structure could be what makes or breaks the newest computer animated movie, 9. Though all is explained by the end, the first hour brings little context to the story of a little sack-like figure who wakes up in a post-apocalyptic world. Some will argue the frustration this causes, but they would be missing the underlying themes and multi-layered characterizations that 9 possesses, undermining its intelligence.
The film begins with a small doll, known only by the number stitched into his back, 9 (Elijah Wood), waking up in a ruined world and finding out he is alone. After some time, 9 runs into another sack-like doll, 2 (Martin Landau), who befriends him, though the friendship is short lived due to an evil mechanized beast who snatches 2 away. Eventually, 9 meets up with others like him who explain that a war was waged between man and machine after the machines turned on them, thus wiping out the human race. Regardless of the danger posed by these machines, 9 is determined to get 2 back and travels to a forbidden area where he accidentally awakens the most evil machine of all, one that is determined to get every last one of them.
Part 28 Days Later and part Terminator, 9 works on a level not seen in contemporary adult animation. It shoots for more than just gorgeous visuals and a hauntingly dark tone (though it does have those as well). It explores themes. It has messages. It has a smart ending that questions the whole of humanity and what it takes to survive in a world run mad by technology. This is a deep film that will work best for the more astute viewers who can see below the surface aesthetics and find its many meanings.
9 is a beautifully macabre fantasy that deals with the creation of unnatural life, serving biblical implications that aren't simply brought up and thrown away, but work as an overarching motif throughout. The machine that 9 awakens is said to build other machines "in its own image," echoing the Genesis verse saying that God made man in his own image. It's a cautionary tale about playing God, showing that life is a natural occurrence and attempting to manufacture new forms of it disrupts the flow of nature and ends in tragedy.
At the same time, it's an altruistic tale about redemption and correcting one's mistakes. It's easy to understand that these little numbered people are in a life and death struggle, but we never understand why until the final revelation. Though it doesn't quite make up for the lack of substance prior, it is an interesting turn that impresses not only on its level of ingenuity, but also in its intelligence, which gives the film multiple perspectives on humanity, not just of 9 making right what he has done wrong, but also of another character important to the equation that I dare not give away so as not to take away from the impact of the story.
Many will feel, as I did, that the characters are one-dimensional, with each owning only one defining personality trait. Unlike Carl Fredricksen from Up or Coraline from that titularly titled film, there's really no one character to care about here. They hardly even have names, much less distinguished personalities. However, once the last block of the movie rolls around and you find out how and why these sack dolls came into existence, it all makes sense and you realize that they were purposely made that way, throwing you for a loop and forcing you to reevalute everything you've seen up to that point.
The biggest disappointment in 9 stems from a beautiful post-apocalyptic world that is shamefully left unexplored. When 9 awakens at the outset of the film, he cannot talk, which could have allowed the filmmakers to have him travel the wasteland, allowing us to witness the destruction that has occurred from the war. After all, film is a visual medium. But it doesn't do that. He quickly runs into 2 and gains a voice, limiting its scope and ambition. At a brisk runtime of an hour and 15 minutes, there's not much time for discovery or wonderment. There's so much potential here, but so little is realized.
Although that is a significant detractor in the overall product, 9 is still a wonderful experience that actually conveys a bit of meaning on top of its flashy design. As if it needed clarity, this is not a film for children, as seen early on when it shows a dead mother clutching her dead baby in her arms, a shot that effectively sets its dark tone. It's an adult fairy tale that asks us to question our own morals and it does it well. It isn't perfect due to a few narrative blunders, but 9 is about something, which is more than I can say for most recent Hollywood endeavors.
9 receives 4/5