9 looked like it would be pretty amazing, from the well-edited trailer, and from the stamp of approval offered by Tim Burton. Unfortunately, it was far from the final word, either on grim industrial animation (Final Fantasy VII was more innovative by far), or in post-apocalyptic narrative. It was filled with tropes and cliches, and reeked of lazy scriptwriting... you could tell as soon as you heard the main character confront the "clan elder" and accuse him of being a coward.
Okay, so the movie's biggest flaw was the story itself, which was packed with dramatic cliches, such as the following:
- artificial intelligence has inexplicably turned on its human creators; and by the way, it has a single glowing red eye!
- the rag dolls seem to form a society of RPG archetypes: the big brute, the stodgy old wizard, the battle maiden, the enigmatic twins (who also fill the role of the lovable scientist), and (one of my favorites) the prophetic madman who draws mysterious scribbles on the walls
- small characters run across a bridge to get away from a larger character; chasing them turns out to be a bad idea for the larger character
- messiah character must make a pilgrimage to his place of origin to discover the truth about himself and his anointed task
- one minion, designated "extra creepy", wears a discarded doll head
- SPOILER: movie ends with a gathering of the living and the dead, appearing as translucent, glowing green figures (they're like little Jedi's)
You may or may not know that this distinctive style and atmosphere is actually derived from an older, more compact piece of film. Though it's not really in the same mode, this original version of 9, by the same director, could be compared favorably with its long-form reiteration. It was so compact that it couldn't have fallen prey to the shortcomings snarkily listed above. It left the mystery mysterious, and it offered a simple, utilitarian narrative framework for its gothic treatment. It can be found below:
Okay, so Shane Acker's short film is pretty sweeeet... some gothic, some steampunk, some post-human melancholy, all hung on a nice little story of action and escape. Did it get a little overblown in the feature film? Yeah, maybe. But still, the originality is there in the short, right? And it deserves some praise and attention.
However, to find the real genesis of the most compelling ideas in this video, we have to dig even further back, climbing out of CGI and into, of all things, STOP-MOTION. I sense that the soul of 9, in both its forms, is actually "inspired" (to use a very generous word) by an older short film by Mark Osbourne (no affiliation with Ozzy) called MORE. MORE was a 6-minute narrative short, the first ever filmed on iMax stock, that got famous on the Internet for a while, and was eventually used by the band Kenna for their song "Hell Bent."
Here is the original:
It should be obvious how much of 9 is a reiteration of the style and concepts in MORE. The character design is the most obvious point of convergence, but a lot of the themes are there, as well. The rag-doll characters have hollow insides where they can protect things that are spiritually significant. Both (all three!) films end with a gathering in the shape of a circle, a ritual site of meeting and restitution.
On a broader atmospheric basic (atmosphere is a vehicle for theme, no less than narrative), both of these stories evoke the feeling of living in the aftermath of some great mistake... that something has gone wrong in the world, and these characters are drowning in its consequences, without ever fully understanding the nature of the catastrophe. However, MORE brings this theme out with more power and subtlety -- its weird clay Metropolis is the wrong turn that's taken on the way to utopia, and the main character, in a microcosmic metaphor, shows us that dreams can always lead one far in the wrong direction.
These are beautiful, melancholy, almost Baudrillardian stories of hopelessness, and upon this legacy, "9" builds an interesting mythology, even if it's not necessarily a groundbreaking movie. I'll cover that in my next post on the topic.