On its surface, 9 bares some passing similarities with last summer’s animated hit Wall-E. Both are set in a post-apocalyptic, humanless landscape where the main characters are robots who have outlived their human creators and now eke out an existence among the detritus left behind while trying to figure out the riddle of their existence.
But 9 takes that set up and moves in a markedly different, and more fatalistic, direction than Pixar’s light-hearted fare. Awakening in bombed-out building, a small burlap-covered mechanical man-shaped creature begins to explore his surroundings. He soon discovers others of like him- all named by the number painted on their back. His is 9. The small creatures appear to be the last remains of a recent war between man and machines that only ended in the extermination of humanity. But while 9 and his friends are fairly benign, some of the intelligent machines who participated in the war still pose a danger as they prowl the piles of rubble that make up the landscape. One of them, the architect of the war, is keen on capturing a small brass object that 9 discovered when he woke. As 9 and his make their way in to the machine’s fortress to rescue one of their own who has been captured, they must also try to unravel the mystery of the object that the machine wants.
The world of 9 is an incredibly realized one. The surviving war machines are shaped by an aesthetic more than a little informed by a mixture of Victorian and Gothic design. Skeletal inner workings are exposed, all sharp edges and angles. By contrast, the workings of 9 and his kind are covered in burlap and other fabrics, giving them a more curved and natural shape, a distinction that will subtly reinforce things revealed about their origins later in the film. Both sides make what they need to survive by salvaging what was left by humanity. In this way, the film feels a bit like a post-apocalyptic iteration of the popular young adult book series The Littles and The Borrowers.
In terms of tone, 9 is perhaps the most adult animated film to come along in some time. While never getting too gory or explicit, the movie doesn’t skirt around how its world got the way it is. Flashbacks show us in no uncertain terms the war between man and machine, including the machines’ final method of exterminating humanity. As 9 explores his world upon waking up, we get a few quick glimpses of corpses amongst the post-genocidal landscape.
But for all the thought and care in building the layered world of the film, the actual story is fairly straightforward and lightweight. Once the backstory of both 9 and the machine are revealed, things matter-of-factly play out more as a coda to the events that occurred before the movie rather than being an adventure in and of itself. The story is essentially humanity’s posthumous end game to the war. Annoyingly, the widget that is the plot’s McGuffin remains as much an enigma as to its purpose to the audience as it does to 9 and his friends. Sure, we know what it does, but we never suss out a solid reason as to why it does what it does. Is it a scientist’s desperate last grasp at atonement for the part he inadvertently played in humanity’s destruction? Outside of a few plotline resolutions, the device’s activation in the film’s finale appears to have no real effect for our characters and their future. If there is, it is not explicit in the material. While 9 and his friends’ struggle to retrieve the device from the evil machines is exciting, ultimately their victory rings hollow because we are not quite sure what has ultimately been achieved.