The 17th century saw the rise of the Deists, who believed that God created the universe as a complicated natural mechanism, then left it to run on its own. That philosophy has its comforting side—it implies that the world has a set of predictable rules and no judgmental overseer—but it’s also bleak to think we’re alone and beyond intervention. Then again, we didn’t wake up to find absolute, grotesque proof of the theory in the form of God’s moldering corpse on the floor. That’s the situation faced by 9, the little burlap-and-metal homunculus at the center of Shane Acker’s directorial debut of the same name. He awakens in a shattered lab within a shattered world, with his creator dead on the floor in front of him. As he explores, he finds post-apocalyptic devastation, other numbered creatures of his kind, hideous threats, and a message left by his creator.
That setup is unrelentingly grim and thrillingly ambitious, but Acker’s story (scripted by Pamela Pettler, also a collaborator on the screenplays for Monster House and Corpse Bride) unfortunately doesn’t live up to it. The plot largely plays out as a series of chases and a series of arguments between the impassioned, idealistic 9 (Elijah Wood), who wants to repair his fatal early mistakes, and the conservative, hidebound high priest 1 (Christopher Plummer), who advocates hiding, waiting, and letting the past go. That clash of wills starts out meaningful, but collapses into wearying repetition, and when it finally resolves, the resulting twist is dubious and unearned.
Like so many CGI movies of late, 9 feels like a videogame, one with a lot of familiar sequences of characters leaping between collapsing structures and dodging swinging obstacles. Granted, it would be one of the most gorgeously constructed games in history. Acker brings a Pixar-worthy level of detail and depth to his world; every character, setting, and random object was created with loving attention to its component parts and their varying textures. The animators find a lavish beauty in desolated ruins, and the first half of the film is breathtaking, as the characters explore those ruins and the job left to them by their fallen god. But the quest doesn’t cohere, and 9 spends its momentum early, then winds down slowly, like the proverbial clock abandoned by its maker. It’s a perfectly functional, fairly scary kids’ film, with plenty of craft and creativity to keep adults occupied. But with a story as sophisticated as its visuals, it could have been much more.