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A Nine-Word Synopsis of '9'

September 11, 2009 at 9:40 am

I saw the new stitchpunk movie 9 with a few friends last night.  I'd been looking forward to this for a while because the trailers I've seen are so very cool.

(Also, because I'm frightened and beguiled by the word "stitchpunk".  I don't know if a single movie really merits an entirely new 'punk genre, even if the conceit is wonderfully innovative.)

For a synopsis, I offer my first thought as the credits rolled:  Huh.  Who knew rag dolls lead such exciting lives?

Other thoughts, of equally little substance but a more spoilery nature, below the cut.

I'm basically of two minds about the movie.  Half of it delighted me, and the other half disappointed me.

It looked fantastic.  I loved the world, and the bizarre conceit that it's possible to bring sock puppets rag dolls to life, and that somehow this is a logical thing to do after a robot holocause has wiped out humanity.  I confess that I'm a fan of idea stories.  I'm often willing to overlook other problems in a book or film if the idea behind the story presents me with something weird and creative, delightful and unexpected.  And in that, 9 delivered.  It's about sock puppets rag dolls fighting killer 1950s robots in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  How is that not delightfully strange?

(I like to think this movie is a response to the Terminator films.  Granted, the robot holocaust of 9 takes place in what appears to be a 50s-ish time frame, rather than the early 21st century.  But the two stories clearly drink from the same stream.   Viewed in light of the Terminator franchise, the message of 9 appears to be that John Connor is wasting his time by sending human soliders and modified terminators backward in time.  He should skip all that and just sew up some sock puppets rag dolls.)

So that's what I liked about it. 

On the not-so-good side, the plot doesn't make a ton of sense.  And I'm not talking about the part where the scientist brings sock puppets rag dolls to life, or the idea that 1950s technology could spawn self-aware killing machines.  I'm a genre reader and have been all my life.  So I didn't blink at these things.  They were, by far, the easiest pieces to swallow. 

Spoilers follow.

My biggest gripe is that the movie follows a macguffin plot, which is almost always to the detriment of fantasy stories.  (The Maltese Falcon follows a macguffin plot, though that's not a fantasy story.  The briefcase in Pulp Fiction is another macguffin.  And sometimes the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings is dismissed as a macguffin, but I think that's mistaken because the Ring directly effects the characters and how the story unfolds.  The Ring is a known presence in the story, rather than a macguffin.  I have a theory that more than a few low-grade Tolkein knockoffs have sprung from this misunderstanding.)  Either directly or indirectly, much of the plot stems from the "talisman": a magical doohicky that does, you know, plot stuff.  It was created by the scientist who also created the puppets dolls.  In the end, it's the thing that enables 9 to destroy the monster robot.  But it's also the thing that brings it to life in the first place.   So it seems to me that the scientist could have saved a lot of trouble for his burlappy creations if he hadn't bothered to give them that talisman in the first place.  Seriously, man: wtf?

One symptom of a weak macguffiny plot -- which 9 exhibits in spades -- is a story that revolves around going places.  We have to go here, we have to go there.  (I hasten to add that this isn't always a bad thing.  But macguffiny plots tend to confuse forward plot motion with physical character motion.)  This is particularly noticeable in the case of 9, especially since (1) the title character actually says, "We have to go [to that place]..." several times, and (2) the puppets dolls return to several locations over the course of the movie.  One well-justified return is okay.  After that, though, each return begins to feel like a double beat or a misstep.

It looked so damn good that I wanted very desperately for this movie to make sense.  So near the end of the film I thought I saw where it was all headed: accidentally waking the monster robot was a necessary part of the scientist's grand plan, because it had to eat all the sock puppet rag doll souls (yeah, don't ask) before they could be freed by the destruction of the robot itself.  And that this would achieve some greater aim.  The ending kind of suggests this, but it doesn't commit one way or the other.  First of all, if that was the plan, then why did the robot have to eat some of the puppets dolls but not all of them (or all but one)?  And if the whole point of the adventure was to get some puppet doll souls (yeah, don't ask) to ascend into the sky so that the rain would contain little microscopic pieces of soul (yeah, don't ask), then that should have been foreshadowed somewhere.   We're told that the world is dead, but not much more than that.   So we don't have any way of anticipating, as an audience, how this might be fixed.  Or even that there is a fix.

Also, my ability to suspend disbelief begins to falter when I see somebody going to great lengths to set up something very elaborate and important but then explaining what needs to be done in the most elliptical, cryptic way possible.  The scientist leaves a recorded message for 9.  Why couldn't he just tell 9 what the hell he was supposed to do?  Well because that would have short-circuited the plot, which is built around discovery.  But that's unnecessary: confusion and obfuscation are not the same thing as narrative tension.  It's possible to have a perfectly exciting, suspenseful story even when the characters have all of the information they need.  You can even play with that, and give the audience all the information rather than the characters.

At the very least, the scientist might have provided a warning: "...Oh, and by the way.  If you find yourself in an abandoned factory and you find a piece of machinery with a slot for a missing piece that appears to fit the talisman perfectly, don't plug it in.  Trust me on this.  Kthxbai."

Hmmm.  I didn't mean to sound quite so ranty.  I genuinely enjoyed the film.  Visually, it's wonderful.  And the strange, innovative sock puppet rag doll world impressed the hell out of me.  It's worth seeing just for those elements.  Hell, it's worth seeing just for the snake monster.  I just wish the storyline itself had been equal to the premise and setting.  If it had been, this could have been a home run. 

Addendum:  My friend Jenn reminded me down in the comments that 9 started life as a short film.  You can see it here, and it's pretty neat.


Jenn September 11, 2009 at 11:55 am
I want to see 9 so badly...unfortunatly it's not showing at any of the theaters near Portales. And it sounds like it won't be for a while yet. Grrr... I'm curious - did you see the short film the movie was based on?
Ian September 11, 2009 at 3:16 pm
It's definitely worth seeing, even just for the visuals. I thought so, anyway. I haven't see the short film. Have you? (Hmmm. Suddenly I fear the rest of the afternoon isn't going to be as productive as I'd planned...) I knew 9 had started life as a short film, so I kind of wondered if some of the plot problems had grown out of trying to expand something much smaller into a full-blown movie.
Shane September 14, 2009 at 8:18 am
I loved the look of this movie, but as you say, the plot seems like an afterthought. I wonder if the animation went way over budget and left the writing with $10. This movie disappointed me in the same way the BSG finale did; they set up this complex world and you think that everything means something (why would they put it in if it didn't?), then at the end they throw up their hands and say "You figure it out!" and they pat themselves on the back about how artsy and daring they were. I'm all about thinking for yourself, but after 3 days I'm still wondering what the point was.
TEngland September 18, 2009 at 10:06 pm
Saw the film today (probably no more then 10 people in the audience) and agree with your analysis. A possible help for the end is to assume -- you have to assume, there's nothing to suggest this, just as there was nothing that told you the combined souls would bring rain -- that the little pieces of soul in the raindrops were or would evolve into one-celled critters, which would then restart the whole evolutionary thing and repopulate the Earth. I see this as the only way out 'cause the dolls were missing the proper equipment for reproduction. I mean, why bother suggesting one was female when it didn't make one bit of difference?
Ian September 18, 2009 at 10:44 pm
I think you're on to something here. I'm subscribing to your theory about the eventual evolution of the soul crumbs into actual people with naughty bits. (The good news is that after several billion years, when those re-evolved Cro Magnons finally appear, the poison gas might have leached out of the soil and broken down by then.) In my post I forgot to mention the futility of the whole thing when viewed from the standpoint of rag doll reproduction. It bugged me in the theater, so I'm glad you brought it up.
Ian September 18, 2009 at 10:49 pm
Humans created the octopus-cyclops brain machines. They rebelled. They don't have a plan. A scientist created the rag doll people. He didn't have any plan at all and basically just made shit up as he went along because it sounded like a good idea at the time. And because, hey, free rag doll people.
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