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I might as well admit up front that I consider steampunk an utterly vacuous subcultural trend. Less an aesthetic than an ideology, obsessed with appearances and late-Victorian technology, it's ornamental technophobia for otherwise smart people who champion form without reference to function, as if innovation took a wrong turn on its way to the 20th century. Like so many rusty gears and pipes glued together and never turning a damn thing, Shane Acker's debut film, “9,” falls short of the unity of form and content that makes for the most successful fantasy.
As should be expected from a film wedded to an aesthetic movement, the surface of this film is a sight to behold. Visually stunning, kinetic, and richly detailed, the universe of “9” boasts some interesting visual ideas. The film's central characters provide tactility rare in computer animation, and its gnashing monsters clatter with horrifying life. The battered and crumbling post-apocalyptic landscape rivals that of anything we've seen from the genre, and the direction maintains a shuddering unease throughout.
If only the visual invention were matched in the storytelling. The plot basically explains away all the wonder out of its own wonderful setting. With a tale this mind-numbingly expository and ideas that are vapid beyond belief, you'll find yourself wishing Shane Acker made video games instead. At least then you'd be developing better hand-eye coordination and spatial intelligence while rotting your brain.
So “9” is the title character, the ninth in a series of dolls produced by a contrite scientist who inadvertently created the machine that destroyed civilization. I'm not sure what brings these little burlap figures to life (again, steampunk doesn't tend to bother with actual mechanical operations), but turns out they are independently ambulatory and have souls and feelings and all the rest of the attributes which denote our basest sense of “life.” When 9 wakes up in a dusty room with the corpse of his creator splayed on the floor, the workings of his various parts and the reason for his existence is every bit as mysterious to him. I'd like to be able to tell you they become less so.
Almost immediately, 9 starts screwing things up. He's rescued by another of his kind while exploring the devastated landscape, but comes close to killing his savior (he'll get around to it at last) when he picks up a live round of ammunition and starts to bang away at its blasting cap. In this film, destructive instincts masquerade as “questioning” and stand as preferred opposites to “hiding,” which is what all the intelligent burlap figures do because there's this big mechanical dog that goes around being vicious all the time.
Anyway, 9 continues screwing up the rest of the film, which provides for much of the conflict but somehow also endears him to the rest of his, um ... number. He accidentally awakens that machine that started this whole mess (which had gone to sleep for some reason) by “questioning” this little plug-like object he stumbled onto after coming to life. He's again rescued, but this time by a girl number who is of course tougher and braver than the rest because who would've thought? He screws up a couple more times, he gets a few more numbers killed, and at the end there's some hurried business about souls and redemption and spring rain.
The movie is produced by Tim Burton, and it recalls his “edgy” combo of gothic gestures and sickly sentiment. Like Burton, Acker's ideas are as mundane as his artistic sensibilities are unique. Muddled thoughts on the dangers of reason share space with incredible glosses on fascism and incoherent mysticism. Unfortunately, this film's stupidity is far less singular than it looks.