Production design doesn’t equal a story. You can have the most beautiful costume design, drop dead gorgeous sets, amazing special effects, but if the story is boring and clichéd? Your movie is going to be boring and clichéd. Now, to be fair, this approach has worked well for Tim Burton in recent years, so I suppose this isn’t a hard and fast rule for financial success, but if the worth of a movie was determined by its financial success, people would be praising Michael Bay as the best director of all-time, and disparaging Orson Welles and Paul Thomas Anderson as hacks. (The contentious relationship between art and commerce has come up before, I’m well aware, and no doubt will come up again.) Burton’s films have always had a similar look and design sense to them, though of recent years the stories involved have been threadbare at best, usually cashing in on established properties with remakes or pseudo-sequels. (SEE: Alice in Wonderland, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, Dark Shadows, etc.) It’s fitting then that he was a producer on this film, 9, directed by Shane Acker, from his Academy Award-nominated short of the same name.
9 is the first in the genre that Acker calls “stitch-punk”. Stitch-punk is a sort of cousin to the steampunk genre/subculture, in which the general design aesthetic is based around stitches and thread and cloth, in addition to the steampunk stalwarts of gears, lenses, and rivets. This design scheme permeates the entire film, mostly in the characters, of which there are nine, referred to by number. The film begins after the end of the world, the post-apocalypse providing the desolate and bombed out backdrop that benefits as a contrast to the hand sewn and tiny characters. The antagonists, such as they are, are mostly mechanical monstrosities, obviously heavily influenced by The Matrix and similar films. All spider legs and red eyes, blades and teeth everywhere.
The plot, such as it is, is pretty much identical to the original short film. Unfortunately, it is not available anywhere online legally, so I cannot link it for you all to watch. You’ll have to make do with the original trailer (which is admittedly awesome, especially in its use of Coheed & Cambria’s “Welcome Home.”) Scientist designs machine, machine goes wrong, world ends, scientist’s last creations that he literally puts his heart and soul into survive to wander the wastes and try to avoid the evil machinations of the machine overlord. Add hero’s journey by way of Joseph Campbell, rinse, repeat, count the dollars. Except, the movie does not succeed. The plot and story are too generic, too simplistic. With all the work put into the frankly inspired design of the main characters, and all the care spent on building the world they inhabit, you’d think some time would be spent on crafting a solid and exciting story for them to work through. But no such luck. As it stands, expanding an 11-minute short without adding any major story elements or ideas turns out to have been a poor decision. Especially if, as I suspect, its production was pushed and rushed to make the cutely appropriate release date of 9/9/09.
Acker has not had any directorial efforts released since 9, which is unfortunate. I think he has an interesting visual sense, and his design work is very unique. He is supposedy directing another big screen adaptation of Thomas & Friends, which I find somewhat baffling, but he has to pay his bills in some way I suppose. One can only hope that his next original work has all the spark & ideation inherent in both versions of 9, but with maybe a bit more thought and effort put into the story.