It’s a shame short films don’t really get their due as an art form, because not every story needs to be blown up to feature length, and at the moment that’s the only real way for a movie to get any attention. Shane Acker’s 2005 animated short film 9 was nominated for an Academy Award, but still only reached a fraction of the audience that Acker’s new feature version of 9 will, even if it turns out to be a giant failure. And that’s too bad, because the 9 short is excellent—a creepy, beautiful and haunting piece about the title character, a creature of sackcloth and clockwork on a quest to destroy a mechanical beast.
Acker’s original 9 was 10 minutes long and had no dialogue; the update is 79 minutes long (still short for a feature) and boasts the voices of celebrities Elijah Wood, John C. Reilly and Jennifer Connelly, among others, bringing its characters to life. Neither change improves the material. The unexplained weirdness of the short is replaced by a derivative mythology full of plot holes, and the eerie silence is now filled with wooden dialogue courtesy of screenwriter Pamela Pettler.
The title character is joined this time by Nos. 1-8, all similarly rag doll-like and stumbling through a postapocalyptic world decimated by your standard war between humans and self-aware machines. There aren’t any people left alive, but 9 and his cohorts feel and think like humans (well, one-dimensional movie-character humans), and are thus determined to defeat the evil supercomputer that they accidentally awaken with a mystical doohickey.
So, yeah, it’s The Terminator and The Matrix and every other postapocalyptic sci-fi movie ever made, with a little Pinocchio thrown in, and Acker’s originality pretty much ends at his visuals. They’re stunning visuals, though: The makeshift mechanical creatures manufactured by the villainous machine are nasty and unnerving, especially a bug-like flying thing that scoops up the little protagonists and literally sews them into its guts. Some of the action scenes are quite impressive; 9 succeeds in inverse proportion to how much the characters are talking. (It doesn’t help that the actors Acker has recruited to voice his characters, as famous as they may be, barely sound like they’re putting in an effort.)
Both Tim Burton and Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov are on board as producers, and like them, Acker knows how to catch an audience’s eye. The movie coasts for certain stretches on its unique hodgepodge aesthetic, a sort of steampunk-flavored anachronistic jumble, but it’s not enough to sustain attention for the entire running time. If Burton and Bekmambetov had had the courage to encourage Acker to make an entire feature with no dialogue and no exposition, he could very well have come up with something striking and memorable. As it is, all he’s got is a nice calling card for directing some big-budget comic-book adaptation down the road. Do yourself a favor and track down the original 9 on YouTube, though; that’s where the magic is.