The new computer-animated sci-fi actioner 9 dares to answer one of those questions you never knew needed asking: What if Toy Story took place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland? And all the toys were designed by that bullying neighbor kid?
The title 9--not to be confused with District 9 or the musical Nine; this preponderance of nines!--refers to the title character, a burlap robot doll voiced by Elijah Wood, the number being a designation as much as a name. After waking up in the scientist's lab where he was built, blessed with sentience and enough memory to maybe understand that the body on the floor is his maker but not enough to know what happened, #9 goes out into the ruins of our planet, where he quickly runs into #2 (Martin Landau). #2 is then just as quickly snatched away by a robotic cat skeleton. Why someone built a feral metal kitty is never really explained. Presumably it was somehow useful in the war when the machines turned against their masters, and it's one of the only things that has survived the conflict. In fact, next to the nine little dolls that scientist made, allegedly as some kind of scheme to keep life going, the cat may be the only other creature left alive. It's certainly the only other one we ever see. (Seriously? No insects or nothin'?)
After he loses #2, #9 runs into #5 (John C. Reilly), who takes him back to the church where he and a couple of the other toys live under the iron gaze of #1 (Christopher Plummer), a papal stand-in who prefers hiding out and fosters fear in order to prevent anyone from challenging the oppressive status quo. Naturally, #1 and #9 don't get on very well, as #9 has an annoying habit of not leaving well enough alone. For a guy just born this morning, he is surprisingly lacking in caution. #1 accuses him of asking too many questions, but that seems to be a mischaracterization, as #9 doesn't really ponder much at all before boldly charging forward time and time again. In fact, nobody does. They aren't even surprised to see the new guy show up. But more on that later....
#9 is convinced #2 is alive and in need of rescue, and he talks the meek but trustworthy #5 into showing him the way to the metal beast's lair. #5 hasn't been the same since he lost an eye back when the fighting was still going on (again, no one wonders why their inventor released them into the chaos rather than keeping them safe), but this new influence has stirred something in him. On their mission, they run into #7 (Jennifer Connelly), a warrior who couldn't abide #1's dictatorial leadership style, and the twins, #s 3 and 4, who have been cataloging humankind using a giant library. #9 also reactivates a pretty terrifying machine hell-bent on destroying all of the Numbers. This killer is powered up by a talisman that #9 was smart enough to take from the inventor's house and yet too stupid to be concerned about what might happen if he plugged it into something. It also happens to have symbols that the scatterbrained #6 (Crispin Glover) has been drawing repeatedly and been referring to as "the source." Turns out that the scientist who put all these things together decided to make the same tiny device responsible for both the destruction and the salvation of his beloved creations. To give us scale, we see that the Numbers are taller than a chess piece but much smaller than a baby doll, so it's not like he didn't stack the odds against them enough already, he had to put a ticking time bomb in their tiny little hands.
Not much makes sense in 9 when you take the time to think about it. Conceived by animator Shane Acker, who originally directed an Oscar-nominated short upon which this feature length film was based, and written by Pamela Pettler, one of the legion of screenwriters on the equally disappointing Corpse Bride, 9 is a movie marred by filmmakers with lopsided concerns. Clearly, there was a ton of work put into the cool design of the world and the flawless animation, but everyone involved stopped short of worrying about a quality narrative to back up those visuals. (The movie was produced by Tim Burton and Wanted-director Timur Bekmambetov, both of whom have built their careers on films that have always looked better than they really are.) As a movie, 9 would make a great video game. Each successive scene of peril manages to one-up the scene that came prior, like the Numbers are progressing from one level to the next. Watching it, however, is about as exciting as being stuck in a room while someone else hogs the controller. When you're not the one playing, it gets pretty boring.
In terms of plot, what there is in 9 is fine, if nothing we haven't seen before. Many scenes look like samples from other movies--Ripley trying to not get kissed by a bug in any of the Aliens movies, the raptors on the hunt in Jurassic Park, the ghosts at the end of Return of the Jedi--and the overall concept is a little Terminator and a little Pinocchio. Acker and Pettler try to construct 9 like a sci-fi mystery, but it's not one they allow the characters to be actively involved in. The audience wonders where these little guys came from and what happened to the Earth, but 9 and his friends don't seem to care all that much. This makes the explanations that do come seem perfunctory rather than revelatory.
It boils down to a matter of sentience. The creatures in this movie, good or bad, know what they are supposed to do and how to do it, but they don't ever ask why. While I understand that this is the way machines are, they are merely content to function, it's a fatal flaw in a film that presents artificial intelligence as the last refuge of humanity. At no point does #9, the supposedly curious one, ever ask who he is or why he exists. (Doesn't he want a name instead of a number?) Why is #6 crazy? Why is #8 built like a bouncer and given a personality to match? How come #9 came long after the rest had been released? At the climax of the film, when #9 finally figures out that unplugging the thing he plugged into the murder machine might stop it again (duh!), the filmmakers toss in a sort of explanation, but even that serves no purpose. They take that tidbit to the opposite extreme: it's all philosophy and no practical application. How the hell were animated action figures supposed to carry on the human race again?
I realize that quite a lot of this won't matter to people who are planning to show up to 9 in hopes of seeing some cool animation and action. I suppose those people won't be disappointed, either. 9 has a cohesive world that has been meticulously crafted, and when the action gets going, it moves briskly and is full of lots of swift, though oft-repeated, moves. (#7 generally uses the same fight techniques over and over, and the rest of the guys get knocked around a lot). 9 is no more stupid than your average live-action special effects blockbuster, the kind that attracts audiences even while critics like myself gnash their teeth in frustration. The problem here is that unlike, say, Transformers or G.I. Joe, 9 actually presumes to be more than what it is. It flirts with having a deeper story, but for whatever reason, it always stops short, content to stand ankle-deep rather than venture all the way in.