The world of 9 is populated by a visually intriguing cast of characters that first-time feature director Shawn Acker calls “stitchpunks.”
They’re animated cloth dolls, less than a foot high, running around in post-apocalyptic ruins where they are apparently the sole survivors — unless you count the predatory contraptions that hunt them — of a catastrophe that has wiped out humanity.
Acker created his stitchpunks for a student film, an 11-minute short also called 9 that became the basis for the feature film. With their camera-like iris-lens eyes, articulated mechanical hands and sewn rag-doll bodies, the stitchpunks look like stop-motion puppets, though they’re actually computer-animated.
It’s not surprising that Acker’s evocative short film caught the attention of Tim Burton, whose own creations include the stop-motion rag doll Sally and her semi-mechanical creator in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Burton is one of the producers of Acker’s feature debut, making 9 the second recent dystopian sci-fi fantasy — after last month’s District 9 — directed by a first-time feature filmmaker reworking his own short film and produced by a major Hollywood director–producer.
Beyond the titular number, though (also shared with the coming film Nine, a musical, believe it or not, inspired by Fellini’s 8½), that’s where the similarities end.
Where District 9 combines pseudo-documentary realism with scathing satire, 9 offers dreamlike fantasy. District 9 offers a sharply provocative take on social indifference, bureaucratic incompetence and corruption; 9 manages only a vague mishmash of antireligious/authoritarian and anti-science stereotypes, muddled with heroic questioning and hazy mysticism.
Most importantly, where District 9 succeeds in fleshing out the promise of the original short into a compelling feature-length tale rife with ideas, 9 never gets beyond the suggestive imagery of its source material — and winds up with a half-baked stew of platitudes, stereotypes and hackneyed plot devices.
Characters, premise, plot, conflict, dialogue, theme — nothing gels, nothing works. Acker’s sense of visual style does show promise, and he succeeds in creating a world that always feels as if it should be more intriguing than it actually is.
It doesn’t help that the stitchpunks’ dialogue (of which there was none in the short) seems to consist almost entirely of boilerplate that could be at home in countless other films: “We have rules.” “But why do you listen to them?” “A group must have a leader.” “But what if he’s wrong?” “What are you waiting for?” “What were you thinking?” “I started this, and now I have to finish it.”
None of the characters has a voice; there’s no real sense of personality, of self-awareness.
The stitchpunks are numbered one to nine, with their numbers written on their backs, and they might as well be labeled with their character types. There’s Intrepid Hero, No. 9 (Elijah Wood); Eccentric Visionary, No. 2 (Martin Landau); Meek Sidekick, No. 5 (John C. Reilly). And, of course, Dogmatic Authoritarian, No. 1 (Christopher Plummer), complete with miter-like hat and crozier-like staff, keeping his ragtag flock in the sanctuary of a ruined Gothic church, discouraging meddlesome curiosity, and maintaining discipline with the help of Big Dumb Enforcer, No. 8 (Fred Tatasciore). Outside No. 1’s sphere of domination is Rebellious Warrior Chick, No. 7 (Jennifer Connelly), the only female stitchpunk.
While a late-breaking plot twist could be cited in defense of the nearly all-male cast, the reality is it’s a hackneyed fallacy of half-baked fictional worlds created by male writers who assume that characters are male — and that “being a woman” is a character trait. Call it Smurfette Syndrome. (Actually, I Googled it, and it turns out people do call it Smurfette Syndrome.)
Making the one female a tough, independent warrior with attitude was a refreshing move circa 1977, but Princess Leia has been around for more than 30 years now.
The same climactic twist that could explain the dearth of female stitchpunks could also be seen as “explaining” their one-dimensionality. Unfortunately, “explaining” why they aren’t interesting doesn’t make them any more interesting; in fact, it actually drains their interactions of any interest.
Without revealing exactly what happens, suppose the ending explained that No. 9 was only dreaming or hallucinating the other eight Stitchpunks so that they were all merely projections of his own subconscious. Or suppose that No. 9 was caught in a time loop, recursively living out the same events in nine different forms, but the same underlying essence.
The result is an emotional echo chamber, an empty hall of mirrors in which character conflict or interaction is reduced to different angles on a single psyche.
This kind of thing can be done compellingly — when the conflict gives us a real sense of inner struggle, as when Gollum’s better nature and baser instincts agonized in The Lord of the Rings. In 9, though, the unifying explanation is tacked on to account for characters whose real genesis lies elsewhere.
Despotic No. 1 and his muscle-boy No. 8 ruthlessly keeping the others in line while good-hearted No. 9 resists and rebellious No. 7 goes her own way aren’t illuminating the internal contradictions of a single soul; they’re just following well-worn character types and dramatic beats.
Curiously, science, as well as dogmatic authoritarianism, takes it on the chin. The premise is given an old-fashioned Science Run Amok foundation — the phrase “the evil hand of science” is actually used — and the story takes a turn for the quasi-spiritual when it turns out that our machines are corruptible because they lack “soul.”
Curiously, the machines seem to know they lack soul, but go about trying to make up this privation in a way that hardly humanizes them.
I don’t want to be too hard on 9. It’s the first film of a director who shows some promise, and it’s a bravely idiosyncratic vision free from commercial pandering. It will probably fade quickly at the box office, while soulless marketing machines like G.I. Joe and Transformers slog on and on. But Acker does himself no favors with rote antidogmatism and vapid characterizations.
Despite that, though, his little creations remain oddly compelling. Perhaps Acker’s stitchpunk sensibilities will find worthier material in his next outing.
(Read Steven Greydanus’ full review of District 9 at DecentFilms.com.)
Steven D. Greydanus is editor
and chief critic at DecentFilms.com.
Sci-fi violence, menace and scary scenes; negative depiction of a quasi-religious dogmatic authority figure. Too intense for sensitive youngsters.