9 (2009)

Starring: Elijah Wood, Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, Jennifer Connelly, Crispin Glover, John C Reilly

Directed by: Shane Acker

Rating: 1 2 3 4

The cloth heroes of 9

A desolate wasteland, punctured by shell holes and wreathed in barbed wire, littered with the gaunt, angular corpses of men and machines; burnt out buildings lining empty streets. Welcome to the future, according to 9. Amidst this bleak destruction, nine strange little cloth homunculi – roughly made clockwork rag dolls with curiously humans emotions – must fight for survival. Which isn't that easy, when you're only five inches high, and are battling a monstrous machine the size of a factory...

The cloth folks' self-styled leader, the crochety 1 (voiced magnificently by the ubiquitous Christopher Plummer) believes they should stay safely in their refuge, a bombed out church far away from the lair of the mechanical 'beast' that hunts them , but newcomer 9 (the default voice for small heroes fighting big dangers, Elijah Wood) thinks otherwise. If the moral of the film is that evil flourishes where good men do nothing, then 9 is the good guy – even if, confusingly, his attempts to put things right at first seem to make the situation a whole lot worse.

6, voiced by Crispin Glover

Because although this apocalypse that's spelt the end of mankind has been brought about, Terminator-stylee, by the unstoppable rise of the machines, like the worlds of Delicatessen, Dark City, V for Vendetta and Brazil, the future has a recognisably retro feel. The machines have cranked their way to power against a backdrop of a red flags inscribed with black and white geometric symbols; science and magic have been misused in the pursuit of power, while poor crazy 6 (Crispin Glover) appears to have been fashioned from the blue and white stripy off-cuts of a concentration camp prisoner's uniform.

Visually, 9 is an absolute treat, with glorious gloomy landscapes that resemble a cross between the Somme and the twisted regions in habited by producer Tim Burton's characters; super-inventive, seriously scary monsters that creep and slither and pounce and prey and lovely attention to detail in the creation of our cute cloth heroes (note, for example, how twins 3 and 4 are created from a pair of gardening gloves).

The mechanical Beast in 9I'll get the bad stuff out of the way now: the story doesn't hang together very well, the script is a bit pedestrian and too much of the short running time is taken up with action sequences designed very much with the accompanying console game in mind, at the expense of any character development or more thoughtful exploration of the weighty themes invoked, from Frankensteinian issues of science gone bad to the multi-faceted nature of the soul to the conflict between faith and empirical knowledge. Sheesh!

Like its sack stars, 9 is a bit of a mish-mash. The Borrowers meets Lord of the Rings meets Terminator, it's unsure what it wants to be or who it wants to appeal to (Tim Burton fans, who like a bit of mental stimulation along with our gothic landscapes, or fans of animated adventure, in which case why make the visuals so darned scary?). Nevertheless, it's entertaining, exciting and engaging and really quite different to anything else you'll see this year, so I'll be generous and give 9 a four.

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