In every genre, there are films that are remarkable not because they distinguish themselves from other films of that genre by doing something uncharacteristic or unprecedented, but rather because they adhere to the formula in such a way that it reminds the audience why the genre is worthwhile to begin with. 9 is one of those films. Critics of the film has justifiably praised its incredible visuals, but some have raised objections about the stock characters and predictable story line. Those criticisms are fair. The characters are more archetypal than individual. There are surprises and twists, but the audience still knows the story and knows where it’s headed. What makes 9 different from the sort of cookie cutter replicants that make a genre seem redundant is that director Shane Acker infuses the familiar story with the care and attention that restores our faith in the value of retelling. 9 breathes new life into the clichéd post-apocalyptic story by stripping away the excess and getting back to the core: the basic struggle for survival and the question of the value of life.
9 opens with the title character (voiced by Elijah Wood) – a ‘stitch punk’ to use Acker’s own term, or, to over-simplify, a walking rag doll – awaking in and abandoned house in a devastated city. Aside from a prologue featuring a terse voice over and the sound of gunfire, we, the audience, know just about as much of what happened as the protagonist. Both the audience and 9 are forced to draw their own conclusions as they explore the wreckage and encounter propaganda graffiti, bullet holes, war posters, and, of course, corpses (one of the first and most startling being the remains of a woman cradling a child in a bombed out car). In those first few minutes of the movie, Acker sets the prescient for what, perhaps, is the only truly unprecedented thing the film – the inspirational intricacy, imagination, and rawness of the visual elements. Critics have drawn comparisons between Acker’s aesthetic and that of Tim Burton, but unlike Burton, Acker purges the cute and quirky in favor of the sinister and alienating. Forced to see the world from the perspective of the diminutive 9, the audience finds the seemingly insignificant essential and immediate. The distance from a desk to the floor is insurmountable, a tin can becomes a place of refuge. Forced to renegotiate because of size and circumstances, the recognizable becomes distancing. For the audience, like 9, there is no place of rest, nothing firm to hold on to. Like the best of post apocalyptic film and media, in the world of 9, the things designed to make life convenient have becomes obstacles. Survival depends on fusing and reworking something into something else – a bird’s skull into a helmet, a broken razor blade into a battle axe.
This sense of uncrowdedness is carried wonderfully through the film as 9 discovers the other inhabitants of the world. As the story progresses, we are introduced to the other eight stitch punks – appearing in scattered pairs as each tries to negotiate the wasteland in their own fashion. Like the characters of many post-apocalyptic stories, the confederacy of stitch punks is held together more by necessity than by choice, but, unlike other stories, where the initial animosity gives way to sincere devotion and understanding, each character is more or less hardwired in their beliefs and behavior. They are archetypes, not individuals, but their rigidity is refreshing when one considers the absurdity (present in many other films) when one hardened character is suddenly a changed man after 24 hours in the presence of a hero. 1, the self-appointed leader (voiced by a terrifically icy Christopher Plummer), maintains a callous, siege-mentality survivalist perspective throughout, supported by the thuggish 8 (Fred Tatasciore), the most massive and least intellectually vigorous of the group. By contrast, 2 (Martin Landau), an aging inventor, and 7 (Jennifer Connelly), a principled warrior, are more eager to explore the desolation, looking for clues with the aid of the non-speaking twins 3 and 4, dedicated researches who communicate through eyes that flicker like projectors. Caught in the middle are 2’s apprentice, 5 (John C. Reilly), more cowardly and less independent than his master, and 6 (Crispin Glover), a withdrawn artist seeking answers in his own way.
As each of the stitch punks explores and hides, fights and flees, bonds are formed and broken and alliances renegotiated. As the film progresses, the group is pushed together not because the characters have changed, but because the circumstances are different. As threats multiply, so does the animosity within the group. With fewer options open to them every second, the stitch-punks become more adamant that their way is the only way to survive. Acker is also quick to demonstrate that there is value and disadvantages to each perspective – a time and a place when it is essential, and a time and a place where it is an obstacle. 9’s heroic idealism is as endangering as it is empowering in the same way that 1’s callousness is upsetting but necessary. 7’s courage and combative prowess is not always effective against the odds, while at other times the lumbering stubbornness of 8 reminds the audience when it is helpful to have a bully on your side. As an aspiring artist myself, I especially enjoyed the moment where 6, who lacks the more ‘practical’ fighting skills of 7 and 8 and the inventive skills of 2 and 5, intervenes at a crucial moment by making an appeal to the others that not all that is meaningful can be directly perceived, demonstrating clearly the importance of the artists’ perspective even in times of crisis. If the characters do ‘change’ at all, it is in the moments when they realize whether their perspective helps or hinders – alternatively tempering their courage or overcoming their cowardice for the betterment of the group. 1 and 5’s journey in this regard is particularly compelling as they recognize they have a different role to fill when things go from bad to worse.
And boy do they. In the fashion of all good post apocalyptic stories, things get much harder as the characters find fewer places to hide, fewer resources to use, and more things hunting them. The first beast hunting the stitch punks in the wasteland – a snarling, mechanical catlike creature – is only a prelude to a variety of other horrors that are unleashed as the characters probe more and more. Aside from a few flashbacks and one or two leaps ahead covering no more than a few hours, the story of 9 moves almost continuously from the main character’s awakening through the films conclusion, drawing the audience’s attention to the fundamentals of survivals and not burdening them metaphorical meaning or needless back story. Each scene is immediate and visceral: explore, run, hide, fight, run, rest, run, hide. In those lengthy, sustained chase and combat scenes, the questions the characters and audience have regarding the world give way to the present terror of the incoming threat. Unlike Burton, who always keeps part of the scary monster safely under the bed, Acker lets the beast right off the leash. While it’s probably a good bet that 9 will last at least until the end of the film, you can never be sure of anyone else.
And that’s where the message hits home. Our fascination with post apocalyptic things does not have to do with death, but rather our fear that the ultimate death – global apocalypse, total destruction – is not final. It is tied up with our fear of the afterlife – that there may be no release, no rest, no reward at the end of our suffering. We are terrified and intrigued by the possibility that there are hardships and threats that transcend the worst of our imagination, that we survive something horrific only to be subjected to new horrors. The stitch punks in 9 are not responsible for the devastation of the world, nor do they seem to have much stake in it, much less a plan for the future. All they want to do is to live because that’s all there is left when there is nothing to live for. Today, we watch businesses crumble and see the crazies both home and abroad poised to tear apart society, we are drawn to those fundamental ideas of survival simply because its one of the few things left that we have some control over. The archetypal heroes of 9, struggling for control over their environment and control over one another, are manifestations of our conflicted, disoriented fight or flight, hero or coward response to our deepest fears.
In an era where most new films seeks to distinguish themselves from their predecessors by having more action, more effects, or somehow finding some new gimmick to set themselves apart from the endless stream that seems interchangeable from year to year, it’s encouraging to see something that stands out because it tells an old story well. Ironically, those other films fail to distinguish themselves because it is never a gimmick or twist that makes a piece of art worthwhile. The gimmick and twist is just a way to distract from the true lack of originality or imagination. The critics are right to praise the film’s innovative visuals, but the visuals are not what makes ‘9’, in my opinion, the best film of the summer. It’s the honesty – in the acting, in the writing, and in the fearlessness to do the familiar without worrying if it becomes cliché. Acker knows how to tow that balance beautifully. He combines the reliability of a tried and true forms in the characters in the plot that have become tried and true because there’s something in them that speaks to us with enough imagination and newness to whet our appetite.