I am not going to shy from discussing details and outcomes of the plot when they are relevant to the points I am discussing here. So if you want to go into the movie without knowing the details of how it will turn out, get thee to the theater and then come back to this post.
I saw the first preview for 9 before the excellent Coraline earlier this year. (Read my review of Coraline here.) The basic premise of the movie intrigued me from the outset. In a post-apocalyptic world, the only remains of humanity come in the shape of small robotic dolls created by a scientist before his demise. These little burlap-clad characters, known only by the numbers inked onto their backs, are left to navigate a hostile world dominated by intelligent machines.
I have been looking forward to 9 all summer, and I finally got to see it on Saturday. It is a bit outside my usual discussion of literature that goes on here at The Heretic Loremaster, but the movie was intriguing and, to my mind, the definition of speculative fiction, so here we go.
In some arenas, it did not disappoint. Like Coraline, despite the fact that it is an animated feature, 9 is really not a movie for kids. (Although, just as when we saw Coraline, there were a handful of tykes at 9 was well. It makes me wonder if their parents even bothered to look at a preview or just saw “Animation!” and went with it.) Aside from its bleak post-war setting, its sentient machines are often annihilated in–if they possessed flesh and blood–extremely gruesome ways. They are hacked to pieces in large propellers and crushed to “death” by giant cogs. Worst of all is the soul-sucking and unoriginally named Machine, which vacuums the life force from our little burlap-clad protagnonists and leaves them empty-eyed, slack-mouthed shells, their “spirits” abandoned and gazing confusedly around themselves before being dissipated to smithereens.
But despite its darkly detailed landscape and shudder-inducing horror, 9 falls into an unfortunate trap. In order for the viewer to care about the horrors being enacted on the little burlap people, they needed to come to life a lot more. Unfortunately, 9 is dogged somewhat by its storyline, which requires that the characters function as archetypes rather than people and fall flat as a result.
As the movie chugs along, we are made privy to the backstory that leaves the world devoid of life save sentient machines. Returning to the First Room–the room where he awoke–our hero 9 discovers how he and his eight compatriots came into being. The benevolent scientist-creator who engendered them bestowed to each a portion of his personality. Therefore, we get the cautious, the curious, the taxonomists (twice!), the good-hearted, the intuitive, the courageous, the thug, and the idealist: or we get a scientist, or a whole human personality, only fragmented into nine pieces.
While this functions beautifully from a mythological standpoint, it falls short in terms of allowing the viewer to care about the burlappies as people. And, in a movie that is packed full of action scenes, caring about who falls into a bottomless abyss or who gets sucked dry by the Machine is essential. Already, the fact that the characters are animated and the fact that they are non-human distances us from automatically empathizing with them. One of the reasons that 9 can indulge in the degree of character mutilation that it does is because the characters are clearly mechanized and clearly non-human. Remove one of the other and we would have likely ended up with the typical movie treatment of a gruesome death (save in the Saw/Hostel torture-porn enterprise): the camera sweeps away to one of the other characters cringing at his or her shoulder. The same distance that allows these scenes without flirting with a higher rating unfortunately works universally to distance the viewer from all of the characters’ experiences. Characterizing them as personality traits rather than people only hinders the movie further.
It also runs the risks of dualism: shelving the characters as Good or Evil with no allowance for overlap. 1, the conflicted and cautious leader of the burlappies, and 8, his thuggish sidekick, ease across the boundaries a bit and challenge the monochrome worldview, but the other burlappies are without a doubt on the side of good and the machines on the side of evil.
This significantly weakens the story. To contrast, consider Coraline, a story of much greater moral ambiguity. Although Coraline evolves into the classic quest against a villain, it does not shy away from ambivilent depictions of its characters. Coraline’s cruelty to Wybie, her parents’ blatant disinterest in their daughter, and even the Other Mother’s remarkable ability to create things of beauty–even if only as an illusion–suggest something well beyond the dichotomy of good and evil, dark and light, right and wrong but, rather, the human struggle to understand and cope with the shades of gray that we encounter in real life.
Ultimately, this means that the horror of Coraline is that much more potent than the horror of 9. When Coraline inquires of a button-eyed, silenced Other Wybie, “Does it hurt?” she gives voice to the query rattling around in our brains as well, a question that is at once childish and yet outlives childhood. The question and the sentiment behind it appeal to us as humans. When 7 rips a javelin-sized sewing needle from her thigh without a flinch, she marks herself as bigger than us, as more than human. It is hard, then, to empathize with her plights and those of the other burlappies, even as they try to save the world.
And what of that? What of saving the world?
Again, I think that the dualist tendencies of 9 dog its ability to speak meaningfully on its theme of our relationship with science and technology. We are given glimpses of backstory throughout the movie, enough to know that the machines that eventually destroy civilization were devised with benevolent intentions by an idealist technologist working for peace. But he was deceived and the machines were hijacked by a nefarious agency (whether corporate, government, or something else entirely is not clear) and corrupted unto destruction. Indeed, their original creator later gives his soul, piecemeal, to the burlappies to ensure some continuance of society and, eventually, rebuilding.
But, again, this dichotomizes it too neatly. Questions concerning the appropriate roles of science and technology in our lives are the bread-and-butter of many speculative genres and certainly an apt subject for consideration. But technology cannot be plunked into Good and Bad, and modern life makes it nearly impossible to interact solely with the Good while excluding the Bad. Consider, for example, the Industrial Revolution. The same technology that improved almost universally the quality of life in Western civilization (and is since making its way to the rest of the world as well) also pollutes our planet, creates opportunities for sweatshop and slave labor, destoys the skilled and fulfilling trades of artisans, and often tethers survival to employment with (and loyalty to) a factory or corporation. Automobiles afford us opportunities of which our ancestors could not have dreamed, yet they also pollute and cause over one million deaths worldwide each year. Non-human animals suffer terribly and die to make the medicines and the chemicals that grant us safe, healthy lives. Western women are no longer given a life sentence of spinning, weaving, and sewing clothing but, in exchange, women and children in third-world countries make our warm, comfortable, cheap clothes in sweatshops for pennies each hour. Are we better or worse for the technological advances of the last two hundred years that allow these things? It’s an impossible question to answer definitively, and it is even less possible to point our fingers at any individual, entity, or even moral outlook as the reason for technology’s darker side. There is no evildoer to turn the Machine against us and so a dualist examination of the question is going to fall short.
There were a few interesting points in 9 that I’d like to address before concluding my review. Firstly, there is the presence of a female character. At first, her presence irked me because, as one woman out of nine, her inclusion reeked of tokenism. (Someday, I hope, the creative folks who make movies and write books will realize that women are actually a majority of the world’s population and character groups will be structured accordingly.) Then, when I realized that the burlappies represented facets of their creators’ personality, her inclusion becomes a little more complex. Is 9 recognizing gender as more fluid as absolutely male or absolutely female? It certainly seems so. Without 7, I don’t know that I would have thought much about gender at all. Without 7, I would have been content to accept the robots as asexual, inclined towards male because the creator from whom they were derived was male. As it is, though, I’m curious about the motive behind 7’s inclusion. Is she present because the feeling is that a group of heroes must have a woman, so much so that the writers are willing to overlook gender ambiguity that will be an uncomfortable subject for many mainstream viewers? Or are the writers commenting on gender with 7’s inclusion? Or a bit of both?
Then there’s the ending. When I realized what the ritual at the end was to accomplish–“freeing” the spirits drained by the Machine heavenward–I rolled my eyes a little at the need to conform any discussion of death to Christian mythology.
But then it began to rain. And I understood that the ritual was not to “free” the souls to an afterlife but to free them to effect works upon the world. Rather than moving “beyond the circles of the world” (to borrow from Tolkien) and no longer affecting or being affected by it, death is instead depicted as a means by which a corporeal and spiritual entity bound to the world it inhabits is transformed to enrich and return to life in that world. It’s a very pagan concept.
This leads me to consider whether our idealistic creator-scientist may have done this deliberately. The raving “disbelief” in global warming perpetuated by the most fundamentalist of Christians originates from the conviction that a single lifetime upon a planet–shorter “come the rapture”–does not require stewardship of it. After all, they expect to move onto a better place after death. Perhaps our creator-scientist recognized this and made sure that such destructive delusions would have no place in the mythology of the future world?
Finally, I have to ask myself if I am missing the point with my main critique of the movie, which is its heavy reliance on archetypes and dualism. But, at the same time, this is really a creation story. It is a story of a world destroyed and renewed. (And, as a student of Tolkien, I can’t avoid mentioning that it is renewed by something a lot like subcreation sans the religious angle.) But with its grand quest against evil and the ultimate purpose of its characters to restore life upon an annihilated planet, it certainly has a mythic feel to it. Am I missing the point in comparing it to stories like, say, Coraline, which concern themselves much more intimately with the conflicts of the individual and family? Are the two going to be at odds with each other?
In conclusion, I give 9 2.25 E.L. Fudge “Elves Exist” cookies out of four. Even if I am asking too much of a myth, the flat characterization and simplified depiction of a complex debate made it difficult for me to become invested in the movie. It had some astounding and creative concepts, and it certainly raised some interesting questions for me. But it fell shy of its potential.