You're plunged into a strange new world in Shane Acker's 9, from the very first scenes.
By the end, you've seen a fascinating, gripping adventure in which the fate of the world rests in the hands of a troop of tiny little mechanical beings with burlap faces and numbers painted on their backs for names.
In between, 9 is a computer-animated wonder, an apocalyptic action-thriller that's a little like The Terminator meets WALL-E. While pundits have already ceded this year's Academy Award for animation to the magnificent Up, this is the movie that will give it a run for its money.
There's a minimum of set-up here - just a small mechanical figure, 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood), who achieves consciousness in a blasted post-nuclear landscpe. He discovers that he's not alone - but while he finds others of his kind, he also finds that they are hunted by a feral, wolf-like machine that wants to tear them to bits.
When one of their group is spirited away by this creature, 9 and 5 (John C. Reilly) set out to find him - and accidentally trigger the dormant doomsday machine that destroyed the world in the first place. It's up to 9 and his cohort to face down the giant mechanism and preserve the spark of humanity with which their creator imbued them.
Acker's computer imagery is grimy, dark and haunted. He creates a desolate, destroyed world, a more aggressively hostile and barren environment than in WALL-E. Yet his cast of tiny, doll-like creations (each of which appears to be about six inches tall) has a fully developed personality, complete with foibles. That includes the officious, rule-bound 1 (Christopher Plummer), a commanding fatalist whose sole instinct is for self-preservation in order to cling to the tiny bit of power he holds over his fellow creations.
What to call them? Robots? That seems too mechanical for figures that wear the equivalent of zippered jumpsuits (within which is housed their mechanism) over cloth heads. Dolls, then? Well, they have irising mechanical eyes and voiceboxes, as well as Edward Scissorhands-like appendages for fingers.
Acker barely pauses to explain their origin or the genesis of the struggle between man and machine that destroyed Earth (or at least the part that we can see). By the time he does, it doesn't matter - he's created characters you connect with, who are caught up in a survival struggle that can't help but engage you.
9 does grab you, right from the start - and it doesn't let go until the end. It's a landmark in melding sci-fi action to animation in a way that will keep you enthralled from start to finish.
For more of my reviews, interviews and commentary, visit my website: www.hollywoodandfine.com.
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