There will not be a more audacious, more theologically complex film this or any other year than 9. Melding spirituality with science, this animated post-apocalyptic fantasy suffuses the two seemingly opposite disciplines into a rich synthesis that favors the asking of a question over whether or not there is an answer that the asker is capable of understanding.
The hero is the eponymous 9, a mechanical doll crafted of burlap, goggle-eyes, an oversized zipper and finely crafted copper and wood hands. He comes to consciousness alone and voiceless. A gentle soul made up of equal parts curiosity and trepidation, he ventures from the ruins of the lab in which he finds himself where he discovers his first friend, 2, and his first brush with danger in the form of the mechanical beast that attacks them both. 9 escapes, 2 is not so lucky, but despite the obvious danger posed by the wolf-like beast, and the dire warnings given to him by the colony of other goggle-eyed, cloth-crafted creatures similar to himself that he discovers, he refuses to leave 2 to is fate. Its an innate sort of compassion, and the fact that 2 is the one who literally gave 9 his voice. Theres also the matter of the strange round talisman that 2 found in 9s abdomen. The metal disk embossed with odd symbols that mean nothing to either of them, but looks strangely similar to what the half-crazed 6 has been drawing obsessively convinces 9 that is, too, should not be left in the hands, or rather the paws, of the beast.
He immediately clashes with 1, the autocratic leader of this small band of refugees who, until then had numbered, and been named, 1 through 8. Instead of accepting the rules and remaining in the sanctuary afforded by the bombed-out cathedral where the other dolls shelter, 9 asks questions. Lots of questions. Questions with uncomfortable answers, and worse, some with no easy answers at all. Topping that list is 9s response to another dolls reasoning that every group needs a leader. 9 counters by asking what if the leader is wrong. As 9 and 6 go to the rescue of 2, their journey becomes inextricably linked to an equally important quest for their origins, how they came to be, and why they exist at all.
Its heady and treacherous fodder for a story and one executed with intelligence and humanity by co-writer and director Shane Acker. The dolls, despite the limitations of the materials from which their faces are made, evince a broad range of emotions both grand and subtle. The dialogue is as deceptively simple as the most profound zen koan, and the dangers posed by the journey are intense enough to have garnered the film at PG-13 rating. The Beast and other assorted machines are devastatingly evil, the result of an unfortunate blending of science and politics. This machine doesnt just kill, it annihilates, and its minions are terrifying enough to make oblivion seem like an acceptable option, The mechanical pterosaur seemingly made of scissors and knives, red eyes aglow, and absolute mastery of both land and sky is the stuff of nightmares for anyone of any age. The action sequences in which it and the other machines figure are vertiginous, and the landscapes of ruined humanity heartbreaking, with the timeframe of those ruins looking very contemporary.
The dashes of humor are tempered with the loss of all traditional life on earth such that by the time a vintage record player finds its voice with Judy Garland singing Over the Rainbow, the sweetness of that song and its poignant longing are almost unbearable and yet oddly healing.
9 mixes elements of alchemy, kabbalah, Rousseaus Social Contract, and Descartes scientific method, not to mention his dualism, and an optimistic belief in second chances, or at least the possibility of one, into a profound and profoundly moving story.