Talkies may be the norm, but some films are still better off without dialogue. WALL-E won audiences over in its initial silent half-hour. And animator Shane Acker’s 10-minute film “9” (2005) was a weirdly compelling vision of vulnerable, rag-doll-like humanoids fighting to survive in a bleak landscape — no conversation or exposition necessary.
Now 9 is an animated feature directed by Acker and produced by Tim Burton. It’s easy to see why Acker’s creepy-cute vision attracted the guru of goths-in-training, but Burton seems to have brought to the project his talent for pairing creative visuals with boilerplate scripts. (This one is by Pamela Pettler, who also penned Corpse Bride.) From first frame to last, 9 is fascinating to behold, but not so interesting to hear. Back in the 1980s, college theaters used to play the version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis featuring a pulsing, synth-pop soundtrack by Giorgio Moroder. Some film buffs call that a travesty, but for Acker’s film, the feature-length-music-video treatment might be an upgrade.
The setup is promising. A goggle-eyed creature with the number nine stamped on his back wakes in a deserted room and ventures outside into a postapocalyptic city. There he encounters a similar creature, 2, who gives him the power of speech (and the voice of Elijah Wood) before they’re both attacked by a monster that looks like a dino skeleton wired to kill. In time, 9 meets his six brethren and one sister, all in the same perplexing position: Someone or something stitched them together from spare parts, breathed life into them and dumped them in this hostile world without a map.
Call it an allegory of the human search for God and meaning; call it a modern Frankenstein; call it what you will. But such heady concerns evaporate when 9 becomes scene after scene of scary monster attacks, explosions and reprisals, as the unlucky numbers learn to defend themselves against ever-multiplying and ever-mutating evil machines.
If this sounds like a video-game version of the Terminator movies with a plucky rag doll as John Connor, it should. The short film’s mysticism and its haunting last scene are still there, along with new backstory about how humans brought the world to this pass. (Apparently they succumbed to an overload of Futurist imagery.)
But, in fleshing out all nine numbers (only two really figure in the short), the filmmakers added clichés. Each character has a personality that can be summed up in a sentence: 9 is the questioning seeker (and hence the protagonist). 8 (Fred Tatasciore) is the muscle. 7 (Jennifer Connelly) is the warrior. 6 (Crispin Glover) is the freak (what a surprise). And so on down to 1 (Christopher Plummer), who fancies himself a high priest and tries to hold the others to a regime of blind obedience.
You could probably also map these characters to a timeline of European cultural history from the dark ages to the Enlightenment. But what they really need is some snappy repartee, some wit to go with their wondering — a dose of Terry Gilliam, in short.
What’s left to enjoy is the inspired design of the numbers (or “stitchpunks,” as Acker calls them). Unlike a lot of blocky, candy-colored 3-D animation, these figures, with their skins aping familiar fabrics such as burlap and corduroy, look like you could reach out and touch them. Their sandbag-plump lower halves and prominent stitches, zippers and buttons make them seem easily undone (in a literal sense), while their eyes, flickering iris camera shutters, evoke human souls. Like the creatures in Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal, they stay in the imagination long after all the standard fantasy plot business is forgotten.