“We had such potential, such promise,” says a scientist (Alan Oppenheimer) as he stitches together what would be his last invention: the ninth in a series of small, sentient robots, each less than a foot tall and cobbled together from wood, copper and burlap. Thanks in part to the inventor himself, mankind has just lost a Terminator-style battle against the machines—frightening creatures that look like pterodactyls and spiders, only forged from metal. 9 (Elijah Wood) and his surviving relatives 1 through 8 can’t even agree on if they should fight for freedom, let alone how they would. Their leader, 1 (Christopher Plummer), has an old world’s sanctimony and small-mindedness. He’d rather the gang hide out until they rust. But 9, 2 (Martin Landau, 5 (John C. Reilly) and 7 (Jennifer Connelly) are ready to rebel.
Director Shane Acker gives this technopocalypse the gorgeous grime of steam punk. And, like the craft fair aesthetics of Focus Features’ earlier cartoon, Coraline, the animation looks all the more real by fetishizing weights and textures you can feel. We can mentally grasp the robots’ rough, detailed burlap skins and metal joints. The mundane can become extraordinary; the imaginary, like, say WALL-E’s flying ’bots, are so perfect they’re beyond reach. The worst thing you can say about 9 is that it’s the look not the script that keeps your interest. Acker and Pamela Pettler’s plot fades fast in the light of day—it’s borrowed too much from other doomsday yarns—but its beautiful, silent stretches and patient restraint make it a film worth every one of its 79 minutes.