Once upon a time, if you saw a short film, you saw the work of someone who wanted to make a short film. Nowadays, that ain't necessarily so.
In 2006, Shane Acker's 10-minute computer-animated 9 was nominated for a Best Animated Short Oscar, but by that point, Tim Burton was already working with Acker to develop it into a feature. It became the latest in a line of "calling card" shorts: works created by inexperienced filmmakers hoping to get a full-length movie out of their efforts. In just such a way, Jared Hess's short Peluca became Napoleon Dynamite; Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden's Gowanus, Brooklyn became Half Nelson. Sometimes, the raw material was there for something bigger and richer.
Sometimes, it's not. In its expanded form, 9 remains a dazzlingly innovative vision that showcases Acker's skill as a director. But in trying to develop the mythology behind his story, Acker loses sight of its appealing mystery.
The title refers to the number scrawled on the back of a rag doll (Elijah Wood) who wakes up with no knowledge of the world. Wandering through a crumbling, corpse-strewn city, he soon spots a similar figure marked as 2 (Martin Landau), and learns that a dangerous mechanized predator stalks the streets. But how did these sewn-together bits of burlap achieve sentience? What happened to all the humans? What is the significance of a strange dome-shaped artifact 9 carries from the place of his birth?
The short film version of 9 notably answered none of those questions. The numbered protagonists never spoke, and the question of humanity's fate never entered into things. Here, we discover that a human scientist perfected an artificial brain known as The Machine that eventually came to be used for fascistic military purposes in the days before The Machine built its own army and wiped out civilization. As a result, the post-apocalyptic landscape the characters occupy feels considerably more mundane—a Terminator universe with John Connor turned into a puppet.
And that's a shame, because Acker clearly has filmmaking chops when he's dealing with purely visual storytelling. His world is full of fascinating visual conceits, including the way The Machine turns its minions into hybrids of pre-historical creatures, like saber-tooth tigers or pteranodons, and robots, or one of the electronic dolls using a magnet as a consciousness-altering drug of choice. Breathtaking choreography marks every one of his action sequences, the editing and tension-building choices demonstrating the kind of precision that should make every slavering Michael Bay fanboy embarrassed to consider Transformers a piece of cinema. The short 9 suggested the kind of potential Acker could have as a feature filmmaker. Amazingly, this version of 9 makes it look like we underestimated him.
It's just a shame that he's not working with script elements as compelling as the visual backdrop. Pamela Pettler (Tim Burton's Corpse Bride collaborator) developed the screenplay from Acker's story, and they're trying to express some ideas about responding to crisis, the isolationist, self-preservation mode favored by the dolls' self-appointed leader 1 (Christopher Plummer) versus 9's preference for facing the threat head-on. But 9 does little to develop these characters beyond their opposing philosophies, and limp vocal performances by Wood and Jennifer Connelly, as the doll with the strongest warrior mentality, do little to add personality. When you've cast Crispin Glover as one of your voices, and even he seems to disappear into the scenery, something's seriously amiss.
Because 9 is an animated feature, it's inevitable that some potential viewers are going to assume it's kid-friendly, which it most decidedly is not. Even more so than Coraline, it's a dark vision more likely to inspire nightmares than delight. In fact, 9 has much more in common with summertime action eye-candy than with family entertainment; it's an astonishing technical achievement that never quite pulls together a gripping narrative.
There's reason enough to watch 9 just to thrill to Acker's brilliant filmmaking chops, and anticipate what he could be capable of once he latches on to a great story. While he spent a lot of time on expanding the context of his short, I'm waiting to see what happens when he learns his own lessons: it's one thing to bring something to life, but you've also got to give it soul.