"9" is another Tim Burton triumph of style over substance
I can’t tell you how many times in the last 17 years I got really excited seeing an incredibly cool trailer for a movie only to have my expectations shattered by seeing Tim Burton’s name attached to the movie. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate Tim Burton. He has been responsible for some films that I love, but in general I consider his participation in a film as a curse rather than a benefit. I can pinpoint the exact day I made this decision on Tim Burton. It was the night of June 19, 1992. I was leaving Batman Returns consciously thinking “wow, that movie was 99% flair, and whatever the other 1% was, it sure wasn’t substance.” And that formed my impression of Tim Burton’s overall record as a filmmaker and it’s a record that he tends to meet most of the time. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve gotten some entertainment value from several of his films, including some that he directed himself. But even the movies that I really enjoyed, like Eduardo scissorhandsHe fought mightily to give me something that would overshadow the “vision” and give me something substantial.
Now you don’t have to tell me that Tim Burton loves to put his name on every project that comes to mind out of the corner of his eye. I liked Nightmare Before Christmas and I’ve heard a lot of complaints that I practically had a two paragraph concept that was developed and created by others, but still it was that dark vision of Tim Burton that tries to push that poignant story into the midst of the subversive world. I can hear all of you Burton lovers yelling “you just don’t get it, man.” I understand. He loves an attractive movie. I can understand your fan’s appreciation for your work, but just because something has a visual flair and an atmosphere that’s expertly done doesn’t mean there’s something in there that isn’t.
So, I admit that Burton, after bringing me two incredibly happy movie experiences in the ’80s,Beetle juice and bat Man– I could be tarnished for the next 17 years by an incredibly bitter one, basically Batman Returns. Well let me tell you that every time I come across a huge Batman Returns supporter is inevitably a Tim Burton fan rather than a Batman or comic book fan. I remember the first Batman Returns discussion I had in 1992 with a fellow student and a co-worker. I thought he was absolutely crazy. I heard the argument about expanding the incredible vision of Gotham City that he had started to build on the first one. The anguish … blah, blah, blah. That, for me, was the problem. I need a story there. You might even accept the movie as is, but it still doesn’t change the fact that you can practically get the Batman character out of Batman Returns and suffers nothing. It really has little impact on the story or plot. In fact, Michael Keaton even disappears for a third of the movie. The film even failed as a psychological drama about the neurosis of two people.
Okay, I guess I have to talk about 9. Yes, I was immediately disappointed when I saw Burton’s name in the midst of half a dozen other producers. But the movie looked so cool in the trailers. It’s probably the first Tim Burton-associated project that I really wanted to see in a dozen years. So I gave it a try.
First, even for a weeklong night out, I had a bad “word of mouth” feeling about 9 entering the cinema. The first trailer had just started and there was no one in the theater. For the record, this is the first time I have walked into a movie theater after the lights had been dimmed so I wouldn’t see anyone else there from a late-night show of the excellent and unappreciated Fast change with Bill Murray, Gina Davis, and Randy Quaid in 1990. For those who haven’t seen it, it’s a brilliant job, devastatingly fun: Netflix at full throttle if you haven’t seen it.
In any case, this 7:20 pm 9 screening was empty. Eventually, there was an additional customer who came in after the actual movie had started, but it wasn’t a substantial enough audience to prevent me from putting up all the armrests and laying down on the seats and passing gas unapologetically during the movie. So what about 9 o’clock? It was visually brilliant, eye-catching, and beautiful. The performances were excellent from Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly, Martin Landau and Christopher Plummer, basically excellent across the board. And the story, what little there is, was acceptable. Yet this short film spends the first hour of its 80-minute runtime winding through a dark, esoteric world with almost no identifiable frame of reference for the viewer. In my opinion, the classic Tim Burton to the bad. The problem really starts for me with the lack of a solid foundation, either in pure fantasy or in whatever reality it can relate to.
Let’s compare that to a “Tim Burton” movie that I loved, Nightmare Before Christmas. Nightmare was immediately established as fantasy and set the rules and guidelines for his fantasy world from the very beginning. I was on board and I kept it up from the lovely story to the outstanding music. So 9 begins to give us a brief background to the fictional world where a 1940s militaristic society reminiscent of Nazi Germany creates a Steampunkish version of Skynet from the Terminator series. Man makes machines. Machines take on a life of their own. Machines destroy humanity. I can get on with that. In fact, I completely agree with that. Okay, what’s left? Well, there are 9 puppets left. Make it 8 puppets and an Oogie Boogie puppet to the Nightmare Before Christmas, only this time with half a pair of scissors tied to a rusty nail. What are these puppets? Why are? Do we need to know? So a little.
I tried. I really tried to move on. Puppets have a kind of life. Are they machines? Well, they seemed to be threatened by the remaining machines, so it’s difficult to determine. Why do they have life? They really seem to be more rag dolls than mechanical ones. Why does my old, uncreative mind have trouble accepting this for what it is? It is a group of puppets that fight against a group of hybrid machines, one of which seems suspiciously built by the evil Sid from Toy Story.
The problem is that history forces us to re-give us clues that it IS important what the purpose and origins of these puppets are, so you cannot enjoy it for what it is. He’s caught in this twilight between fantasy and tech speculation and he never lets you go too far by any means. It never allows you to buy 100% on any of the story visions and after 45 minutes, even though the character from 9 He was charming and friendly, I began to not care if the mechanical dogs and pterodactyls absorbed the mysterious life force of these puppets or not. I just wanted the story to get somewhere. Admittedly, it does, hastily, in the short, rushed third act where all of these tech pieces and symbols all of a sudden become very important even though the end credits roll without properly explaining any of it. It’s a huge slap to the audience. Just accept that this piece of metal does this and it means this and this does this when it is placed there and cold, soulless, soulless machines have some inexplicable ability or need to suck the souls out of these rag dolls.
Better yet, turn the whole thing into a cross between a ghost story and a fundamentalist religious story to sum it all up. We basically have a cheesy post-apocalyptic crossover from the 1940s between Raggedy-Ann, Christian mythology, and the end of Return of the Jedi. I’d say it’s quite a hodgepodge mess, except there aren’t even enough substantial parts of the story to make it too big of a mess. Not horrible, but not very good either. It’s moderately entertaining and endlessly unsatisfying, only supported by impressive visual flair, entertaining performances, and some witty sequences that lead to a conclusion that will have even the most spiritual and captivating of us shudder with cheese shame. -factor. Hey, it’s classic Tim Burton.
That’s the end of my review, but for the record, I loved Ed Wood. Probably Burton’s best since the ’80s, and Michael Keaton remains arguably the best Batman on screen (not to mention the standout Beetlejuice).