Adaptation is the medium of our time. For better or worse, appropriation has devolved from oxymoronic theories of postmodernism into a more practical mode of replication. With films in mind, when, if ever, will this market driven habit of re-mining used material will run aground? The most confounding examples are the films that get remade by the same director; Hideo Nakata’s U.S. remake of his own film, Ringu, was probably more lucrative for him and exposed more people to his work, but artistically speaking added nothing to the original. The same could be said for Michael Haneke’s arrogant remake of his arrogant film Funny Games — a point-for-point slap in the face that did not expose Haneke to anyone new. (Tempting Naomi Watts digression denied.)
But how do we categorize Shane Acker’s remake? Acker’s visionary, award-winning and Academy Award nominated 11-minute short of the same name wowed everyone with its sensitivity to visual and emotional detail. Bring directors Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch, Wanted) and the ubiquitous Tim Burton to the table as producers and Acker finds himself with the opportunity to turn his short into a feature length film. Visually, 9 flourishes with a larger canvas, but narratively it languishes under the heavy hand of the script and storybook contrivances.
The film is an animated fable about the rise of a new kind of machine. Emblazoned with the number 9 on his back, and with the body of a sock monkey, the titular lead character is the product of an innovative scientist and of resources limited by a diminishing and hostile world. Jolted to life in a Frankenstein-like fashion, 9 wakes to an apocalyptic wasteland where his creator is dead. Motivated by unknown forces, he picks up a strange glowing medallion and strikes out on his own into a land aptly called The Emptiness. Little does he know he has eight siblings that came before him, each with their own assigned number. When he stumbles upon 2, his joy in finding a companion does little to lift the dark ambiance and simply accentuates the inherent loneliness of the barren landscape. And no sooner does 9 find a friend than he loses him: stalked by a much more sinister form of artificial intelligence, referred to as “the beast,” 2 is captured and whisked off to a foreboding, smokestack-crested castle. Of more importance to the beast is the small medallion that 9 harbors inside his zippered body: it awakens a maniacal assembly machine that is able to create weapons out of found materials. In the midst of war, it was the ultimate defense, but now that war is over and all the humans are dead, the only adversaries are 9 and his friends who, ironically, were made by the same man as this super weapon. Like so many historical examples, the scientist’s greatest invention was used as a tool for power. The aging scientist, seeing his folly, created his smaller and much more delicate machines in his own image with the hope that, even in this brave new world, the meek would be able to inherit the earth.
Even before 9 speaks, his physicality gives him personality that supersedes anything voice actor Elijah Wood can offer; 9’s stitched together burlap skin borders on the freakish, but every other element of his being evokes gentleness and vulnerability that is immediately identifiable. He has a zipper that runs the length of his torso. When he’s unzipped, the pull hangs like genitalia; when he’s zipped closed, the pull more resembles a chicken’s wattle. 9’s eyes, enclosed in a rigid lens, contain the most delicate diaphragm apertures that open and close with as much expressiveness as any human eye. Further, each of the 9 ragamuffins has varying attributes of individuality within the group: 1 has crude metal hands and a belted waist; 2 is tied up with a shoelace; twins 3 and 4 are smaller, hooded and voiceless; 5 is a buttoned and patched warrior; the crazed 6 is pinstriped and mop-topped; 7 is the smooth-skinned female that seems an obvious homage to the titular character in Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke; and 8 is the burly and thuggish Stay Puft Marshmallow Man version of the species. Their vivid tactility moderates their voice actors’ performances. Elijah Wood and Jennifer Connelly bring a humanness to the two leads, 9 and 7 respectively, but it’s really Christopher Plummer as the ego-driven 1, Martin Landau as the aging 2 and John C. Reilly as the timid 5 whose performances best compliment their characters. Crispin Glover plays the rambling 6, but his part is, sadly, very small.
9 unfortunately suffers from two minor missteps that diminish the film’s power; specifically an unfulfilling narrative arc and a frustratingly over-orchestrated score. 9, the short feature, had an air of mystery and an aura or loneliness and revenge; this full-length version attempts to flesh out a background, construct an adventure plot and edge ever-so-close to a love story, but it all feels very forced and even truncated within this brief, 79 minute runtime (and God knows 10 of those minutes are probably credits). The script relies too heavily on convention and reduces these enigmatic characters to ethos in a way that’s patronizingly superficial. Acker clearly thinks outside of this box. The screenwriters for his film do not follow suit.
The same could be said about the soundtrack, which screams summer action blockbuster: the first trailer for 9 had hints of clever contemporary choices for music, employing a song from electronic wunderkinds The Knife and another from salt-of-the-earth prog-rockers Coheed and Cambria, which was a complete tease — instead, 9 uses button-down action adventure orchestration that is way too overbearing. Acker draws from influences that he readily acknowledges, most notably Jan Svankmajer and the Quay Brothers (the quintessential Quay doll head finds its way into 9 a couple times in the form of a demon spider machine). He also chooses a dark and apocalyptic aesthetic that evokes both influences (as well as Blade Runner and a host of sci-fi-themed video games). The look fairly ubiquitous, but unique for a film billed as a PG-13 family flick. But as much as Acker’s visual ingenuity is a force to be reckoned with, the watered down script and simplistic cause-and-effect plotting of 9 comes across as the result of micromanaging industry types — and all the poetry of that original short is lost to The Emptiness.