Thursday, October 01, 2009

Film Review: "9"

Several days ago, I watched Shane Acker's feature length film "9" (based after the short of the same name). I wanted to like the film a lot, and I did; it is visually captivating, beautifully animated, and contains all the pieces of a powerful narrative. What I was disappointed with, however, was how it did not connect these pieces together in the best possible way in order to unfold the narrative to the audience.

The film starts out with the character, '9', being created by his master. This initial scene is fascinating to behold as it develops, because it handles the transmitting of information from the screen to the viewer much better than the rest of the film does.
The world of '9' is introduced through the awakening of the protagonist, who stumbles upon an open window and views this world he must discover. At this point we don't know who he is, why he is created, or why the world is in the shambles that it is in, and that is fine; in fact, it's much better that we don't know these things.

Information is best given out in controlled amounts, spatially placed for the viewer to consume at chosen intervals. At the beginning of 'Portal' we don't need to know that Glados killed everyone in the facility; we don't need to know that there were other test subjects who tried to escape; what we do need, however, is to be spoon fed just enough information (little bits of dialog slowly giving hints who and where you are, in Portal's case) so that we are hungry for the next bite--we don't need a gigantic mouthful of information that we can barely swallow in one gulp. Stories do not need to reveal everything at once; the viewer can be satisfied without knowing huge chunks of information, and the introduction of '9' does this quite admirably.

Immediately, '9' is a somewhat likable character; his lack of a voice causes the audience to sympathize with him--perhaps if they kept him voiceless for a longer period of time the addition of a voice would carry more weight with it.
Shortly after he meets '2,' however, the story starts to sway from its promising beginnings.

One reason that the story loses its weight is by faulty motivations through its characters. When the character '2' is kidnapped, '9' agreeably wants to chase after him. At this point it's a bit hard to sustain a suspension of disbelief since '9' just woke up in this world, has no emotional attachments whatsoever, and seems to spontaneously bond just enough with the character '5' to convince him to disobey his leader's--f
or who knows how many years--orders just at the simple whim of his new buddy and pal whom he barely even knows, our protagonist, '9.'
When the characters' motivations become unbelievable, it causes a lack of sympathy, because the audience can no longer put themselves into the shoes of a character who does something unreasonable. What would have made this choice more believable for the audience is if they were introduced to the rag dolls' daily routine in their sanctuary. Instead, the audience is thrust to this new place for a brief moment to have '9' suddenly state, 'let's leave and advance the plot because we must save time on animation costs!' so they do that instead and it's much less believable. If the film spent more time with its characters, this would create more realistic motivations that the audience can sympathize with.

What I would have liked with the film is:
a) More character moments - as the director stated, the audience needed to care for the characters more, and to do that we need to spend more time with them in just simple, humanistic ways. One thing they could have done was have '8' pull out the magnet earlier in the film, get chastised by '1' for doing so on duty, and then the audience would wonder what 'the deal' was. Little quirks and mannerisms like that make characters more believable and real, so more of that would have been nice.

b) Exploiting the nature of the tiny rag dolls more - these rag dolls exist in a miniaturized version of our blown up (literally and figuratively) world. I would have enjoyed to see how their size played more of a function in interacting with their larger human counterparts.
c) Feeling of hope and desperation - this is something that the short film did extremely well: it portrayed a sincere and utter hope of laying everything on the line for one last chance at redemption after every other character had been killed by this beast. '9' only had one opportunity to destroy the beast, and it created some increasingly tense drama that is not present in the feature film, only because '9' is never put in the same desperation in the full length version.
d) More solid story goals - currently, the story goals of the film go something like this: '9' must explore this world; he wakes up in the sanctuary and now must save '2' by destroying the beast; he does this but awakens the master beast and now must do research to defeat it; somewhere along the line he decides to go back and destroy the master beast; he figures out he needs to grab something off the master beast before they kill it, and then does so. This sequence of goals sort of works, but it's quite hard to follow and to relate to the characters as they pursue each ensuing decision. I think the story would benefit a lot more from a restructure that would simplify each goal to a couple of basic concepts and then exploit those concepts to their fullest potential. For example, off the top of my head: '9' wakes up and goes back to sanctuary; sanctuary is destroyed and some get kidnapped leaving '9' to choose sides about whether to hide or go after the kidnapped people (this would give him more of an incentive since the stakes are now higher); the beast lets '9' kill him but the trade-off is somehow '9' activating the master bot; then '9' must find the missing members to set up a final trap to destroy the master bot. That's just one simple example.

All in all, '9' is a great film to look at, but could be improved in the story department. It was interesting to hear how the director himself said that they needed much more time than the given 6 months of pre-production to lay out the story, because once the story is set, animation is expensive, and you can't throw away money out the window. It just goes to show that story--is everything. You can have great visuals, great characters, and a great setting, but unless the viewer is catapulted on one long emotional, narrative ride, it can all be for naught.

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