The end of human civilization is not healthy for children and other living things. But movies as varied as WALL·E, Children of Men, and The Road Warrior are proof that apocalyptic catastrophe is great for moviemakers, inspiring wonderfully original visions of ruin and expanding the artistic possibilities of cinematic technology. The latest achievement in art direction with an end-of-humanity theme belongs to the CG-animated fantasy-adventure 9, a tale of trust, bravery, and cooperation among a scrap-heap tribe of survivors, set in a desolate near-future where an overarching artificial intelligence known as the Great Machine has turned human-built contraptions into oppressors.
With no small debt to the nameless residents of the Village in the great 1960s TV series The Prisoner, the hero of 9 named for the number on his back is himself a nameless individual. And like the others in his tattered crew, he’s a mutant: Some time before mean machines ran amok and all but obliterated humanity, the flesh-and-blood tinkerer who invented 9 and his cohorts out of junk, household hodgepodge, and burlap (lots of burlap) managed to sneak a little bit of old-fashioned, carbon-based soul into each. Our protagonist, for instance, displays qualities of compassion and leadership, and is voiced by Elijah Wood to prove it. The crusty naysayer known as 1 (Christopher Plummer) is a proud old war veteran who’s also prone to cowardly pessimism when push comes to machine-driven shove. The dude called 5 (John C. Reilly) is as loyal a sidekick as you’d expect in a Reilly-voiced one-eyed doll made of buttons and cloth. Wearing terrific bird-beaked headgear and modeling her moves on Angelina Jolie kicking butt in Wanted, 7 (Jennifer Connelly) is a fearless, feminist dream of a wonder woman. The mystically inclined artist numbered 6 (Crispin Glover), meanwhile, wields pen-nib fingers with a skill he might have learned from Edward Scissorhands.
Those homages to Wanted and Scissorhands are no accident, by the way. First-time feature director Shane Acker developed 9 (not to be confused with District 9, Nine, or Cloud 9, a recent indie about old German people having sex) from his stunning, much bleaker, wordless, 11-minute film of the same name. Acker’s short which served as his 2004 UCLA student thesis and starred only 9, 5, and a relentless machine floated around the film-festival circuit in 2005, rightfully scooping up an Oscar nomination. It also acquired influential support from heavyweights like Tim Burton and Wanted’s Timur Bekmambetov, who served as godfatherly producers the way Peter Jackson backed District 9 director Neill Blomkamp.
The expanded cast of creatures looks great, dressed and animated in the homespun style Acker calls ''stitchpunk.'' (Fans of Acker’s original film devised the term ''steampunk'' tp describe the machine-y nuts-and-bolts-and-scrap-metal aesthetic that defines the movie’s look and the characters' environment.) 9 and his gang negotiate their dust-colored, junkstrewn, wrecked world with unceasing ingenuity, repeatedly extricating themselves from dangers involving stomping, clanging, weapon-hurling contraptions. The violence, while not bloody, is diabolically inventive, and may burst the zippers of littler kids in the audience; one of the creepiest technobeasts is a doll-headed ''seamstress'' that mechanically sews a victim up within itself.
In fact, the numbered creatures and their dead-eyed pursuers are so engaging, and Acker’s visual style so delightfully, obsessively devoted both to close detail and broad scope, that the movie rattles on for quite a while before the more sci-fi-minded viewer realizes that the story is ultimately ethereally thin, and conventionally upbeat. Storyboarded with precision, and enhanced with a resonant score by Deborah Lurie, Acker’s handsome, feature-length 9 is, for all its visual flights of fancy, grounded in an apocalypse-proof message graspable by any schoolchild: When machines (or other bullies) rise up, a vulnerable population can find strength in cooperation. We should all share our resources to fight back against oppressors, trust girls to have really good ideas, and repurpose household items whenever possible. B+