(Revised, first published in The Bison student newspaper Fall 2020)
“Our world is ending, but life must go on.”
Shane Acker’s film “9” warms hearts with a warning chill, just as this final line of its opening narration suggests.
Peopled with a few tiny animatronics whose adorable appearance suggests a cutesy children’s animation, the PG-13 rated action piece wades into much darker themes of death, hubris and the dangers of allowing fear to dictate decision making.
First released in 2009, its themes remain frighteningly relevant – perhaps even more so.
The film rapidly establishes a steampunk world where all humanity is gone, destroyed by human arrogance, and inhabited only by the machines that humanity has left behind, told through the mechanical eyes of 9 (Elijah Wood).
As he explores the dismal world he comes to life in, 9 encounters other numbered people made from similar scrapes, their fabric bodies containing mechanical innerworkings.
He learns that although the war between humans and the machines they made is over, and all people have died, dark mechanical creature still roam the ruins.
9 and his companions are constantly looking over their shoulders, locked in a violent struggle for survival against these monsters.
As one of the film’s producers, Tim Burton’s trademark eerie beauty peaks out through despairing fog, but with a somber vein running through its center.
This is a story of suspense, human suffering and facing terror, not a quirkily morbid fairytale.
Deborah Lurie’s soundtrack is understated, with few discernible melodies, focusing instead on throbbing beats that underscore only a select few sequences, leaving the rest of the film to the vital intensity of William Files’ sound design, where wind rustling through empty buildings and distance metallic thuds send hearts beating fast.
Glimpses of the final human regime suggest a civilization reminiscent of the worst of both Cold-War era Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany.
Newsreels depict a political leader titled Chancellor (Tom Kane) – a title held by Hitler – who addressrd his listeners by calling them “Comrades” – a term which calls to mind popular depictions of both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Notably, although in the newsreel scenes he is label as Chancellor, in the movie’s credits, this character is listed simply as “Dictator.”
Red and black faded banners also pay clear homage to the Nazi flag.
Through all these buried hints and powerful images, the film’s condemnation of military dictatorships is undeniably clear, as it credits the destruction of humanity and civilization to human desire to establish “peace” through the iron grip of military prowess and intimidation.
In the film’s present, 9’s story affirms that a culture of violence and fear is never the right answer to danger.
As they discover bits and pieces of what led to their apocalyptic reality, 9 and his small companions disagree over the best method with which to face the terrors of their present situation.
Some, represented by the leader, 1 (Christopher Plummer), choose to run from their fear, hiding among the rumble and turning their eyes from the chaos outside as the number of surviving little robots dwindles one by one.
In contrast, 7 (Jennifer Connelly) has abandoned 1’s group in favor of fighting against the dark creatures that haunt the ruins.
9 takes another route, seeking to understand the cause of the dangers they face, addressing them at the source.
He never gives up on the truth of what has happened.
In the end, it takes all of them working together, their differing views balanced against one another, to successfully face their losses.
When 9 gains the ability to speaking, it is no accident that his first word is “friend.”
Friendship’s complexity is forefront in the cast’s talented vocal deliveries, providing a thread of humanity to the film, despite the death that surrounds it.
In this strangely heartwarming little film, Acker’s artistic imaginings of the future cling determinedly to hope.