Mother Earth laid waste by a future apocalypse is envisioned once again onscreen in the quirkily creative “9.” Expanding his 11-minute 2005 Academy Award-nominated short of the same name, Shane Acker has used the support of producers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov to recruit big-name voice talent and elaborate his story of pint-sized humanoids charged with perpetuating “life” on the planet. Design aspects are arresting and the filmmaker’s abilities are obvious, but the basic survival story remains slight, just as the general setting, no matter how artfully imagined, is by now pretty familiar. These factors, coupled with very brief running time (picture proper, sans credits, lasts 72 minutes), suggest good returns by specialized release standards for this Focus Features toon rather than more grandiose potential.
Acker’s UCLA-made short pictured the same bombed-out, desolate urban landscape, one in which the eponymous little creature, a doll-like figure with a body of zipped-up fabric and blinking lenses for eyes, played hide-and-seek with a predatory mechanical monster until tricking it into its demise. Both are back for more cat-and-mouse this time, and are joined in the fleshed-out screenplay of Pamela Pettler (“Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride,” “Monster House”) by Nos. 1-8, forerunners of No. 9 and all created by a genius human scientist as hoped-for seeds of intelligent life in the wake of a cataclysmic war.
Unlike before, the numbered colleagues can now talk, and talk they do as they congregate and strategize over how best to cope with the monster — and then, more dauntingly, with an enormous beast with so many moving metal parts that it’s impossible to get a full picture of its true shape.
It’s a very simple story, one distinguished by the unusual nature of its protagonists (although they share the same manufactured “species,” each has its own distinctive look, personality and identifying number printed on its back), the often elevated tone of their discourse and the ever-intriguing detail of the landscape. Looking like decimated post-WWII Europe but most strongly evoking a ruined London, with its emphasis on Victorian-era, post-industrial revolution ironwork that characterizes the Steampunk style, the film summons up images of scientific imagination and worldly devastation close to those found in Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, as well as in films as recent as “I Am Legend” and “Wall-E,” in which protags similarly navigated cities emptied of their prior flesh-and-blood inhabitants.
Among those scurrying through the scrapheaps of a dead civilization, a waste pile left when the ultra-powerful machines turned against their makers, are No. 1 (voiced by Christopher Plummer), a reedy, almost priest-like figurehead given to unilateral pronouncements and negative assessments; supportive, one-eyed No. 5 (John C. Reilly); strong-minded female No. 7 (Jennifer Connelly); pen-fingered artist No. 6 (Crispin Glover); Michelin Man-proportioned strongman No. 8 (Fred Tatasciore); mute twins No. 3 and No. 4, and elderly No. 2 (Martin Landau), whose disappearance leads to a daring rescue mission to the distant three chimneys looming on the gloomy horizon.
But it falls to No. 9 (Elijah Wood), the youngest and most evolved of the group, to provide the resourcefulness and leadership necessary to give them a chance against the deadly beast, a clanging giant spider of a thing that relentlessly stalks its prey and, once it has a victim in its grip, destroys its “soul” by means of a devastating electromagnetic force. No. 9 discovers the means to counteract this lightning-like charge, but implementing it is another matter altogether.
Found footage and other excavated artifacts provide pointed backstory about a dictator under whose regime the world went bonkers, as well as info about how the scientist poured aspects of his own human personality into each of his numbered “children.” The film provides creepy, even haunting moments, especially the sight of the beast’s penetrating red eye emerging out of a dusty cloud, and while it’s probably too serious and intense for smaller children, sci-fi-keen viewers from 10 or so upward shouldn’t develop lasting mental problems from it, the PG-13 rating notwithstanding.
In the end, the picture’s impact derives mostly from its design and assured execution. Visuals are drenched in a dusky amber, through which other, more vibrant hues shimmer from time to time, and odd vibrations flutter out that provoke memories of other films, architectural and art-world creations, and slices of history, actual and imagined. Acker’s work seems poised on the edge between commercial considerations and genuinely eccentric creativity, and the best things in “9” inspire the hope that he will more extensively explore the latter before capitulating entirely to the former.