Movie Review: 9 (Tim Burton).


9 is a new animated film based upon an Academy Award nominated short of the same name. The film attracts attention for a intriguing preview, an all-star cast, and (perhaps most importantly) the attachment of Tim Burton’s name to the film (as a producer). But don’t expect your normal animated tale – not even your normal abnormal tale from Tim Burton (ala The Nightmare Before Christmas or Corpse Bride).

For Children?

While the merits of allowing children to watch Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas or The Corpse Bride may be questionable at best, 9 seems to push far beyond the macabre and dark humor of these films. We should have known when the MPAA chose to rate 9 PG-13 while Nightmare and Corpse had both received only PG ratings.

The entire premise of 9 is dark – a post-apocalyptic world in which humanity has been utterly destroyed and only stitchpunk dolls imbued with a soul survive. The stitchpunk dolls stumbling over the dead bodies of humans – soldiers, women, and children – is disturbing enough but the real scares are reserved for the horrifying mechanical monstrosities the stitchpunk dolls must face.

But Is It Good?

In spite of Tim Burton’s strangeness many thoroughly enjoy his films – and his repeated pairing with Johnny Depp – but this film is so different from Burton films that one has to consider it on its own merits. It should not be considered a Burton film (and it is not, though he participated Acker is the main brains).

The film is beautifully rendered (even the dark and morbid aspects are done with artistic finesse). One is drawn into the world and with a little imagination the film world takes on a reality all its own. That said, after twenty minutes I was fidgeting and wishing, “When will this film end?” The storyline consists almost entirely of stitchpunks fighting monsters – defeating or semi-defeating monsters – and then repeating the cycle. The fight scenes are amazingly rendered, the explosions and conflicts engrossing – but while the enemies vary it feels somewhat like an old-fashioned nintendo video game in which the levels repeat over and over with little variation.

Further, the film is painful to watch – not because of the elimination of humanity but because of the constant and growing suffering of the stitchpunks. While one never gets extremely attached to the stitchpunks the minute rendering of the terror of the suffering and the mourning of those left behind is agonizing. At times I wondered, “Will this film end with defeat?” For most of the film its defeat piled upon defeat. Hope is smashed repeatedly and the world draws ever closer to oblivion. Each chance at victory is spoiled and with it another character is heart wrenchingly destroyed.

But Does It Teach Us?

A film can be painful and boring and yet still have a deeply powerful message. Unfortunately, while 9 had great potential to engage us on important cultural and spiritual topics – it falls flat. It tackles a number of interesting ideas but with such brevity and amidst so many distractions that the opportunity for discussion is nearly lost. Here are a few implications I drew from the film (I am not indicating agreement with this ideas – personally I hold a Protestant Christian worldview):

  • The stitchpunks creation/existence correlates with human creation. In this sense, we are god and god ceased to exist as a separate entity in order to create us.
  • god was/is not a greater intelligence but rather another intelligence. The act of creation was an act of survival rather than an act of infinite wisdom and grace.
  • 1 represents institutional religion/political order. These are safe but prevent us from experiencing progress.
  • 9 is a post-modern revolutionary who attempts to move humanity forward. 9’s attempts result in great suffering for mankind. While revolutionary and de-construction may result in gradual advancement, the costs are extremely high.
  • A dystopian view of technological/scientific advancement. Our advancements will one day destroy us.
  • At the same time, an endorsement of radical innovation and rebellion (as 9 epitomizes), yet seemingly with less of a focus on technological/scientific advancement.
  • The death of stitchpunks and the release of their souls is the food to renew the world, to start the evolutionary process again from the beginning.

Concluding Remarks:

9 is well-done artistically and may be viewed on these merits with enjoyment. Those looking for deep, thought provoking storylines and a enjoyable viewing will be disappointed. The worldview presented by the movie – or the extrapolations which one may carry from it – will be disconcerting to many audiences. The film should be watched with a contemplative eye that understands the worldview presented and adequately responds to the truths and untruths presented. The film is certainly not for children. It is not unnecessarily gory, but it is continually suspenseful, frightening in its tension, and dark in its portrayal of death and life.

Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight)

Batman BeginsImage via Wikipedia

There is plenty of garbage out there. Then there is your average, and finally there is the gems – the real quality stuff. C.S. Lewis, Philip Pullman, Stephen Lawhead, George MacDonald, John Piper, Kyle Strobel – these men are authors who exemplify this sort of quality. But what about in film? One name that turns my head every time he associated with a project is Christopher Nolan (another is M. Night Shymalan, though The Happening was a complete disappointment). Nolan appeared out of nowhere in 1996 with the Following, built on a $6,000 budget. This was followed by Memento in 2000, a cult hit that secured him a Academy Award for best screenplay. He secured Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank to star in his Insomnia, a remake of a European film released in 2002. It wasn’t until he released Batman Begins that his name became one common for table banter. He followed this up with The Prestige and then most recently The Dark Knight – continuing the Batman saga1I have not seen all of Nolan’s films, as such I cannot recommend all of them. Additionally, his films are generally dark and some of his films (e.g. Memento) are gruesome and profane..

Today I’d like to talk about some of my interpretations of his most recent film – The Dark Knight. I think it has an amazing number of subtexts which are worth analysis. I’ll warn right off the get-go that I’ll be offering spoilers throughout in giving my analysis.

  • The Joker (played amazingly by Heath Ledger) and his minions represent terrorists and radical islam2I am not suggesting that all or even the majority of Muslims are extremists, rather this is a minority – but a deadly minority nonetheless. It is worth reminding ourselves of the spotted histories of our own cultures and religious beliefs.. Alfred Pennyworth (Bruce Wayne’s butler) warns that some, for ideological reasons, simply cannot be reasoned with stating of an enemy he had once fought, “…he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
  • Harvey Dent represents good men who have gone bad fighting unbelievable evil. How often do we hear of the soldier who kills innocent civilians after watching a fellow soldier mercilessly murdered or a woman ravaged? The point is that even good men can be tempted and fall when confronted with insurmountable evils. Not that this excuses the behavior, it simply helps us make sense of the unfathomable – how good people do such bad things.
  • Batman – James Gordon, the Police Commissioner tells his son, “…he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now…and so we’ll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he’s not a hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector…a dark knight.” In this Gordon recognizes the need for operations which are generally considered unethical and illegal in times of extreme distress. In this way Batman/Bruce Wayne represents some of our CIA/FBI/SpecOps who take the fall for necessary but illegitimate operations of our government3I am not defending all the actions perpetrated by our government, nor even potentially the majority of them. Our government has performed a disturbing number of atrocities and acts driven only by selfishness and greed throughout its history.. Again Alfred tells Batman that he must, “Endure, Master Wayne. Take it. They’ll hate you for it. But that’s the point of Batman, he can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make, the right choice.”
  • The Mob – Representative of traditional opposition. The criminals themselves recognize that there is a difference in motivation between themselves and the terrorists. This is not to suggest that their deeds are less evil but that there motivation is less ideologically driven allowing for more compromise and reasoning.
  • Rachel Dawes – The death of Rachel reminds us of the loss of our soldiers overseas – and sometimes of the loss of innocent lives. At some point, Alfred again as the voice of wisdom asks, “Didn’t you think before starting this some people might die?” We know the right path of action and yet oftentimes when we embark on this path we lose our resolve as the losses mount. What is right is determined no longer right when the cost mounts too high.

There are so many interesting messages within both films (though Batman Begins is of an entirely different tenor). I’d recommend them both as entertaining, realistic, and with valuable subtexts to be mined. At the same time I would warn that true to Nolan’s style they do not hedge away from evil and while maintaining PG-13 ratings are dark films not only in places but in their entire tenor.

And, of course, while I am extremely sad over Ledger’s death his portrayal of Joker in this film makes a fitting culmination to an extremely talented and versatile actor’s career.