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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person Review 9

Both: Given the visuals and origin of 9, we had high hopes for this. High enough that we felt it wise to dial those expectations down several notches before seeing it, lest we be disappointed.

We didn't dial them down far enough.

Lawrence Person: I've been looking forward to this movie for two years. As for why, before I can talk about 9 the feature film, I have to talk about 9 the short film.

The original short film is a real masterpiece. Clocking in at just over nine minutes, it told, in non-linear fashion and without words, the story of a horrible mechanical thing hunting small canvas bag people and stealing their souls, and the efforts of the titular protagonist to fight it. It was clever, original, beautiful to look at, utterly gripping, filled with pathos, terror, wonder, and the sense of a fascinating back-story beyond the boundaries of the film's frame. It was a worthy nominee for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, and after seeing it, Tim Burton gave creator/animator/writer/director Shane Acker the go-ahead to turn the short into the feature film.

Parts of 9 the feature film retain the short film's virtues, but much of the rest falls woefully short of the magic of the original.

Howard Waldrop: This reminds me of nothing so much as Hugh Harmen's Academy Award-nominated 1939 cartoon Peace on Earth, as done by a creepy stop-motion iconoclast like Ladislaw Starewicz or Jan Svankmajer. (Warning: 3 seconds of full frontal animated clay nudity in that link.)

The surviving intelligences of a machine-human war seem to be sewn together with burlap 'toe sacks, and have been made in a series. The film is about all of them and their world, but mostly concerns 9.

The CGI is excellent. I was stuck in a D-Box seat; even that didn't detract from the movie. (It starts out quietly, but soon there are enough sounds and explosions to please the worst gamer who ever was or ever could be.)

LP: The look of the film is truly gorgeous, and hats off to Acker and the CGI team at Focus Films (or their subcontractors). If the jury-rigged, burnished, Steampunk-by-way-of-World War II look of the film appeals to you, it might very well be worth seeing merely on that basis alone. In this it's a lot like MirrorMask: the visuals are much more interesting and original than the plot. But anyone working in visual arts or computer animation will get more than their money's worth out of the ticket price.

And the first ten minutes of the films are very effective, with our tiny protagonist waking up in a half-destroyed house with no memory, no voice, and no idea what's going on.

HW: 9, by (his?) arrival, upsets the status quo (which seems to be Run and Hide). He first meets 2, then ends up with 1, the leader of the group. There's also a Mord the Executioner equivalent (8), who looks like a Golem, or burlap version of Bibendum, the Michelin Man.

LP: They live in an abandoned cathedral over which 1 rules in his pope hat and robe with all the subtlety of Jonathan Edwards and none of his better lines. There's also what appears to be a World War II-era bomber (possibly a B-24) from the final war against the machines crashed into the cathedral, which tells you very quickly that 9's world is not our own. (That, and the alchemical trappings, make it very clear that this is A Fable and not science fiction. And speaking of fables, there's an explicit shout-out to The Wizard of Oz.)

HW: Because 9 is inquisitive and naïve, things begin to go very badly very quickly. We meet the rest of the group while their world starts falling apart. Big problem: A dormant factory once used to manufacture war machines comes back on line: soon everywhere is covered with bio-mechanical versions of raptors, spiders and less-classified things. Some of them are right out of Bosch and Breughel (and, like Bosch, the director has a Thing for knives...).

LP: Some of the monsters are very imaginative. The first one we meet (a mecho-skeletal horror known only as "The Beast"), is the one from the short film, and is every bit as menacing here, and possibly even more so in its reborn form as a sort of canvas hypnoworm with some truly evil adaptive camouflage . But beyond The Beast, most of the monsters here seem to owe some degree of debt to machine intelligences in The Matrix movies, right down to the multiple glowing red eyes.

HW: There's some pretty exciting stuff here; it's repeated often enough you want something else to happen. Eventually, it does.

LP: The struggles between the 9's brethren and their mechanical foes start out quite gripping (especially given how tiny our heroes are; all of them easily fit inside a single army helmet), but quickly grow repetitive. As do the circular arguments between 1 and 9.

HW: I wasn't bored; I was somewhat let down by the last ten minutes, a sort of feel-better-about-things-coda, like the last scenes of a John Ford cavalry movie where all the dead soldiers ride across the sky...

LP: The worst thing about the film is the dialog, which falls utterly flat in almost every scene. This is something of a shock, since screenplay writer Pamela Pettler did a much better job in both Corpse Bride and Monster House.

Even more surprising is the somewhat lackluster voice acting in many of the scenes, especially given the quality of actors assembled here. Jennifer Connelly has fun (and the best lines) in her role, and Martin Landau and John C. Reilly bring their diminutive characters to life. But Elijah Wood and Christopher Plummer are allowed to get away with generally unsubtle, one-note performances, and I think Acker has to take the blame here, as both have done much better. (One of the many similarities with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, another labor-of-love feature debut by an animator-turned-director.)

HW: Good thing I wasn't 8 years old when I saw this. I would think it was one of the best movies ever made and would be looking for more just like it. Because I'm all grown up, I know better.

LP: This is another film I really wanted to be great, or at least very good, and it just turned out OK. It's short and reasonably entertaining, but far less original and emotionally involving than I had hoped. Howard's right: This is a great movie for the 8-12 year old set, much like Monster House, but like that film, the menace and violence may be too intense for younger viewers. (And unlike Monster House, it wasn't marketed as a YA film.) Teenagers may enjoy it too, but many adult viewers are likely to find that the non-visual aspects have a ho-hum, by-the-numbers quality to them. You've seen this plot too many times before. And the ending is more than a little sappy. (Though not as irritating as The Last Mimzy.)

If you haven't already seen the short film, you might want to see the feature film first, because just about everything good about the feature film is contained in the short film, with none of the irritations. (But either way, you should see the short film; it's still great.)

Howard Waldrop's latest books are Other Worlds, Better Lives: Selected Long Fiction, 1989 - 2003 and Things Will Never Be the Same: Selected Short Fiction 1980-2005, from Old Earth Books. Locus Magazine interviewed Waldrop in its November 2003 issue.

Lawrence Person is a science fiction writer living in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in Asimov's, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Postscripts, Jim Baen's Universe, Fear, National Review, Reason, Whole Earth Review, The Freeman, Science Fiction Eye, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and, as well as several anthologies. He also edits the Hugo-nominated SF critical magazine Nova Express and runs Lame Excuse Books.

Directed by Shane Acker

Written by Pamela Pettler (script) and Shane Acker (story)

Starring the voice talent of Elijah Wood, Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover , Jennifer Connelly, Fred Tatasciore, Alan Oppenheimer, Tom Kane, Helen Wilson

Official Website: 9 | Film Overview

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Blogger Claude said...

As you say, the writing was abysmal on this film. Also, thematically, the story makes no sense. As for the ending -- yeah, "sappy" barely begins to describe it. At the showing I went to, as soon as the credits started to roll, a bunch of people started to, quite loudly, ridicule the ending, which it deserved. Still can't believe how bad this film was. Although, aside from the brief voice-over prologue, the first 15 minutes or so, as you point out, were quite promising, but then it started to falter and just kept on getting worse.

September 16, 2009 6:42 AM  

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