Beautifully ugly

There’s no formula—or even script—to 9; and perhaps that’s what makes it appealing

Number 9 is trying to hold on in a bleak future world.

Number 9 is trying to hold on in a bleak future world.

Featuring voices of Elijah Wood, John C. Reilly, Jennifer Connelly and Christopher Plummer. Directed by Shane Acker. Tinseltown. Rated PG-13.
Rated 3.0

In a cluttered room dusted by years of neglect, a tiny clockwork homunculus is roused to sentience. Fleshed in stitched, coarse weave and blinking with shuttered eyes, it sports an elegant number nine painted on its back. Number 9 steps though a window to find the post-apocalyptic ruins of a dead world, frozen in an alternate steampunk version of a circa-World War II European city. A lifeless world save for another tiny figure spied scuttling along the shattered streets below. And Number 9 exits his sanctuary to inadvertently enter the revolution …

And so begins the wonderfully detailed world of the Tim Burton-produced 9, expanded from UCLA student Shane Ackers’ 2006 Oscar-nominated short that details the menacing adventures of Number 9 as he meets up with similar creatures, tagged with numbers one through eight. Each is an archetype of different aspects of the id, and as the necessary conflicts are played out they begin to work together to overcome the peril of The Machine, a sprawling mechanical beast that is intent on destroying whatever remaining lifeforms it catches under its blazing eye. Wrenched from the hands of a scientist and set into place as a war machine for a Hitler-esque dictator, it is determined to finish the job that it had begun by destroying humanity.

As a visual smorgasbord, 9 is some pretty spectacular stuff. With a Gallic sensibility, the creatures of 9’s world are disquietly charming. And the backdrop echoes the works of Terry Gilliam, with a touch of Hieronymus Bosch thrown in as spice. It is a beautifully ugly world of antiquated ruin, and crashing hybrids of steel and bone. Unfortunately, the visuals are about all the film has to offer, as the screenplay doesn’t play out as much more than the cut scenes of a video game. As such, its sparse 79-minute running time (including credits) alters the perception of time itself … and not in a good way. It’s not a boring experience, but it really does seem longer than it is, without using extended perceptions to adequately explore the world it has created. Even worse, the resolution that it struggles toward doesn’t add up in the end, and even seems at conflict with its own internal logic.

But sometimes it’s nice enough to just turn off the brain and settle back into the seat of a slow-moving roller coaster that is crafted out of atmosphere and attention to detail, to enjoy the efforts of visual artists set loose on a project without the distraction of having to abide by any written rules. Such as a script.