9‘s marketing can make this animated film by Shane Acker seem deceptively childish. It revolves, after all, around talking rag dolls. But the movie can get disturbingly dark in a conceptual, atmospheric way that is absolutely unnerving.
The world of 9 is a post-apocalyptic hellscape with barely a sign of life. It is a world brought about by overuse of resources and man’s creations turning against him. This is a land of bombed-out houses and abandoned factories, where wreckage litters the cracked remnants of boulevards. It is a nightmare, one so awful there is no human left to dream at all.
Watch closely and it appears 9 is set in a dieselpunk world, where certain technological advances in the interwar era brought wrack and ruin to the world in a way reminiscent of, but in some ways scarier than, the firebombs and atomic weapons of World War II. At least those left survivors.
The movie has a whiff of BioShock (our review here), with its combination of eerie darkness and midcentury design. There are mechanical creatures prowling about the ruined city that look like something out of H.G. Wells’ worst nightmares; creatures made out of scrap and salvage, the abandoned horrors of a world that is now long dead and buried under piles of debris.
The movie’s little sewn-up characters feel like living, breathing persons. The titular 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood) is earnest and kind. His curiosity about the miserable world he finds himself in drives the entire thing forward. The other stitchpunks, as they are called, have their own quirks and foibles, from bruisers to paranoiacs.
At its narrative core, 9 is about the dangers inherent in creating life. The apocalypse that has befallen the human species was brought about by something made by man. This has echoes of the World War I-era catastrophizing that the new methods of war would lead to doom, as well as more modern fears of hostile AI (with a dash of Roko’s Basilisk). The stitchpunks were likewise created by humans, who fell victim to their own callousness. It is a warning to use the bounties of science an creativity for the common good, and not destroy the beauty around us and slaughter each other like diseased livestock.
9 is a complicated film, but on that clocks in at just 79 minutes. Those interested in a dieselpunk apocalypse won’t be disappointed.