War for the Planet of the Apes


Caesar can be a little grumpy sometimes.

(2017) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karen Konoval, Amiah Miller, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson, Michael Adamthwaite, Toby Kebbell, Gabriel Chavarria, Judy Greer, Sara Canning, Devyn Dalton, Aleks Paunovic, Alessandro Juliani, Max Lloyd-Jones, Timothy Webber, Lauro Chartrand, Shaun Omaid, Roger Cross, Mercedes de la Zerda. Directed by Matt Reeves

 

This past summer was largely disappointing when it came to quality blockbusters. Sure, there were the usual suspects; loud sci-fi action, crude comedies, big superhero epics and so on. Mostly all of the high expectations for some of these wannabe billion dollar franchises fizzled out of the gate with only a few exceptions.

War for the Planet of the Apes however was one of the best-reviewed films of the entire summer. That rarely translates to big box office bucks – it didn’t recoup its $150 million production budget at the domestic box office and it finished with under $500 million at the worldwide box office, a decent enough number but surely not to the expectations of the suits at Fox.

The movie was curiously light on action despite the title; what it turned out to be was an ape character study of Caesar (Serkis), leader of the intelligent apes and the Colonel (Harrelson), the militaristic dictator of the remnants of humankind. You see the virus that made the apes smart is making humans dumb as rocks. Few thinking, rational human beings remain. The Colonel thinks all of the apes should be wiped off the face of the Earth so that humans can survive; in his mind, Homo sapiens won’t go gently into that good night.

Serkis delivers the best performance of his diverse career. Caesar is extremely conflicted; he wants peace but there is no reasoning with a fanatic. When struck by a personal tragedy, Caesar feels despair and fury but he is still tempered by the basically decent simian that he is. Of course, he’s an inspiring leader of his tribe who look to him as their savior while to the Colonel he’s a different kind of symbol. Zahn provides comic relief (and pathos) as Bad Ape.

There is a subplot involving a mute human child that ties into the ape movies of the 60s and 70s which aficionados of those films will appreciate; I surely did. There aren’t a ton of action sequences but the ones there are Reeves pretty much nails.

The CGI is surprisingly substandard for a film of this importance; there are some sequences in which it is painfully obviously computer-generated. Good CGI is seamless and fits into “reality” like a glove. That doesn’t happen here and it takes the viewer right out of the film from time to time.

I wasn’t among the critics singing the praises of this film. To my eye, it isn’t as good as the first two films in the series. I’m not sure the studio initially had faith in it either as  the movie could easily end the franchise right here; however with a fourth film already approved by Fox and a strong overseas box office chances are the franchise will continue, hopefully with films better than this one. However it is still a better than average summer movie and despite its flaws one of the best to come out this past summer which isn’t saying much.

REASONS TO GO: Serkis does some of his best work ever here. The Nova subplot is truly captivating.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is sadly uneven and isn’t up to the high standards of the franchise. Some of the CGI looked too much like CGI.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few disturbing images, plenty of sci-fi violence and battle scenes as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Serkis in interviews promoting the film indicated that this won’t be the conclusion of the series which may come in the fourth or fifth film of the series; in fact, Fox has already greenlit a fourth film in the franchise.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starship Troopers
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Mother, I Love You

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Turbo Kid


Apple's gonna party like it's 1989.

Apple’s gonna party like it’s 1989.

(2015) Retro Sci-Fi Action (Epic) Munro Chambers, Laurence Leboeuf, Michael Ironside, Edwin Wright, Aaron Jeffrey, Romano Ozari, Orphee Ladouceur, Steeve Léonard, Yves Corbeil, Evan Manoukian, Anouk Whissell, Franҫois Simard, Tyler Hall, Martin Paquette, Pierre Sigouin, Yoann-Karl Whissell, Christian Picone, Eric S. Boisvert, Abdul Ayoola, Nathaly Thibault. Directed by Franҫois Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissell

There was a time when movies just had to be fun, when things like BMX Bandits and Solarbabies filled the 8-screen multiplex with kids and teens. Big floofy hair and a synthesizer-based score were offset by plenty of gore and sex scenes set to power ballads. Mad Max ruled the wasteland and The Last Starfighter soared into deep space. These were good times.

The year is 1997 and acid rain and killer robots have decimated the surface of the earth and reduced the population to a handful of scared townsfolk trembling in the confines of a town on the edge of the badlands, trying to find water wherever they can but most have to get theirs from Zeus (Ironside), the despotic and de facto ruler of the badlands and pretty much anywhere else he can get to on a BMX bike – apparently gasoline is a super-precious commodity that is only used to power cars in emergency situations.

This is the world that the Kid (Chambers) lives in. He’s an orphan who lives in a fallout shelter. He gets by going into the badlands and scavenging for whatever he can find, then trading his goods for water, food and comic books, especially Turbo Rider, the kid’s favorite.

One day he comes across Apple (Leboeuf), a pink-haired chipper happy-go-lucky young girl with ethereal blue eyes. At first the Kid finds her annoying but eventually they become friends and the Kid teaches her the rules of survival. However, the Kid runs afoul of Skeletron (Wright), the right hand man of Zeus which is somewhat ironic because Skeletron has saw blades where his hands should be. In trying to get away, he falls through an ancient door and discovers the Turbo Rider’s suit and power glove, which shoots off a powerful blast of….umm…a powerful blast.

Now armed with a powerful weapon, aided by Frederic (Jeffery), an arm-wrestling champion whose brother was killed by Zeus and whose right arm was chopped off by Zeus and now seeks vengeance. The Kid has his own reasons – first and foremost, Zeus has kidnapped Apple but also nearly as important, it was Zeus and Skeletron who orphaned the kid all those years ago. And before the final confrontation occurs, we discover that Apple has a secret of her own.

As I started watching this, I wasn’t sure whether this was an homage or a spoof of 80s movies and I eventually came to the conclusion that it was the former. Spoofs tend to be mean-spirited but one gets the sense that the filmmakers have a genuine affection for the films and pop culture of the era. The movie is littered with different references to life in the 80s, from the vaguely New Wave synth score to the Legend of Zelda to ViewMasters to rockin’ headbands to the aforementioned BMX bikes to a bazillion cinematic and TV references. The movie began life as a short film that the filmmakers submitted to the ABCs of Death anthology but were not selected; they decided to push on by making a movie of their own based on the short. Either way, Gen X kids are going to get nostalgia overload watching this movie.

There is a ton of gore here but it is not realistic in any sense; blood is essentially red Kool-Aid that fountains from anyone who gets even the merest scratch and while body parts are blown up and limbs scattered everywhere, probably the more freaky images are those of long-dead corpses in the wasteland that are little more than bones and dust.

Chambers is a likable actor who gives the Kid a certain naiveté that is endearing and occasionally annoying, while the out-of-this-world pretty Leboeuf comes off sort of like Goldie Hawn on happy pills. Ironside, a veteran of the sort of films that the movie is paying tribute to, is a bit long in the tooth but still has the gruff skills to make Zeus deliciously hissable.

The special effects are era-specific and look primitive to modern eyes but that’s intentional. In fact, the cheese factor here is off the charts, which some may not appreciate as much as those of us who lived through the era and loved many films from that time. As a matter of fact, I have to say that it brought a nice warm feeling to this reviewer’s gizzards as I was reminded of a whole ton of movies from my misspent youth. Devotees of 80s films will no doubt feel the same, although I think that audiences of a certain age group are going to appreciate this more than younger audiences who might not get the references, at least in any emotionally attached way as a Gen X-er might.

This is a movie that grows on you. Sure, it’s a one-trick pony and maybe you might find it gimmicky and start to get fidgety towards the end but I was definitely in the right frame of mind to experience this movie and fell in love with its goofy charm. No, this isn’t going to win any Oscars but I think it’s got a good shot at being a cult movie that a lot of people are going to adore for a very long time.

REASONS TO GO: Really grows on you. It brings up the warm fuzzies of long ago matinees.
REASONS TO STAY: Cheesy to the max. A bit one-note.
FAMILY VALUES: A decent amount of violence and gore, some foul language and a little bit of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally set in a desert wasteland, filming in Quebec – which as far as I know doesn’t resemble a desert wasteland anywhere in the province – was marred by particularly rainy weather. Because of this, the storyline was changed to an environment polluted by acid rain and standing puddles were tinted green by the film crew to simulate this.
BEYOND THE THEATER: VOD (check your local cable/satellite provider), Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/28/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Dog and His Boy
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Pawn Sacrifice

Carriers


The police department of Ferguson, MO makes sure that Topless Day is a big success.

The police department of Ferguson, MO makes sure that Topless Day is a big success.

(2009) Horror (Paramount Vantage) Lou Taylor Pucci, Chris Pine, Piper Perabo, Christopher Meloni, Emily VanCamp, Kiernan Shipka, Ron McClary (voice), Mark Moses, Josh Berry, Tim Janis, Dale Malley, Jan Cunningham, Mary Peterson (voice), Sequoyah Adams-Rice, LeAnne Lynch, Brighid Fleming. Directed by Alex and David Pastor

Zombies are all the rage in post-apocalyptic horror, but as scary as the living dead might be, what could be scarier than a monster you can’t see: a virus. It is not the virus itself that frightens, although the results end up the same whether infected with a virus or having your brains munched on by a walker but what the virus turns us into.

Danny (Pucci) and Brian (Pine) are brothers. Danny, once bound for Yale before higher education became more of a school of hard knocks, is the more reserved and the smarter of the two. Brian, more of a working class stiff, is the more pragmatic particularly in terms of survival. Along with Brian’s girlfriend Bobbi (Perabo) and Danny’s friend Kate (VanCamp) they are headed to the coast, to Turtle Beach, a resort where Danny and Brian have fond memories.

They have some hard and fast rules which essentially boil down to stay away from those who might be sick which is essentially everyone. They carry bleach and surgical masks which they wear whenever they venture out of the safety of their stolen car. The more they can keep to the four of themselves, the safer they’ll be.

As they drive west they run into a father (Meloni) and his daughter (Shipka) who is infected. They’re trying to make it to a complex where a cure is said to be. At first Brian says no way Jose but eventually circumstances force him to help the other two. For their troubles, Bobbi gets infected although she tries to hide it at first. However, there’s no hiding the horrors that are to follow.

 

In some ways this is a bloodless film (although there are a couple of scenes where the infected burble up blood through various orifices). There is little in the way of gore and hardly any violence. Even when the girls are confronted by survivalists who have rape on the minds comes to naught when they discover that Bobbi is sick after they force the girls to strip down to bra and panties. Followers of Joe Bob Briggs and Drive-In Cinema will be sorely disappointed – back in the 70s and 80s there would have been pustules exploding blood, bodies dripping with gore, knife fights and of course the girls would have been naked and likely raped. Ah, the good old days.

But this is a different era and audience sensibilities are different now. This is meant to be more of a psychological horror film as we watch the tight-knit group slowly disintegrate. You have the natural conflict between brothers which always makes for good cinema, but even that is watered down some and the writers gave them the golden opportunity of having one brother be intellectual, the other working class. I mean, how much more conflict do you need?

Apparently plenty because in the hands of the Pastor brothers this is a kinder, gentler apocalypse, one that is suitable for prime time network television. The moral decisions here are fairly basic – survival versus compassion and in a situation such as this, well, there’s really only one decision so even that conflict feels forced and artificial.

Pine, who went on to Star Trek fame not long after this was filmed, has plenty of presence and charisma as he acts the role of leader here. There is a nice dynamic between him and Pucci, who is more of the conscience of the group. Eventually the roles get reversed but while it is a bit jarring in the way they do it onscreen, the actors manage to make it believable nonetheless.

This is a pretty flawed movie which the studio essentially gave up on before Pine’s success brought it out of the vaults and into a brief release. This isn’t the greatest of post-apocalyptic horrors – it could have used a little more edge – but it has its merits and Pine is worth seeing in this role before he went on to become James Tiberius Kirk. Ladies be warned though – he spends a good portion of the film with a surgical mask on.

WHY RENT THIS: Pine and Pucci make an effective team.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Extremely grim and lacks visceral thrills.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence, plenty of disturbing images and a fair amount of cussin’.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After being filmed in 2006, Carriers was shelved until Chris Pine’s success in Star Trek motivated the studio to dust it off and give it a brief limited release.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.8M on an unreported production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix DVD, Amazon (rent/buy/DVD), iTunes, Vudu (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cabin Fever
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Coherence

City of Ember


City of Ember

Bill Murray loves a kidder and he's got a whole town square full of them.

(20th Century Fox) Bill Murray, Tim Robbins, Saoirse Ronan, Harry Treadaway, Martin Landau, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Toby Jones, Mary Kay Place. Directed by Gil Kenan

A city can be a place full of wonder and it’s only natural that a young person that comes of age will want to be a part of it in one way or another. However, cities can hide the most sinister of secrets and the older a city becomes, the more likelihood of skeletons hiding in urban closets.

Lina Mayfleet (Ronan) and Doon Harrow (Treadaway) have both come of age and are eagerly awaiting Assignment Day in the city of Ember, a darkened city lit by overhead lamps. Doon hopes for a job where he can make a difference in the city’s infrastructure whereas Lina is hoping for a slot in the Messengers. Of course, neither one gets what they want – Doon gets the Messenger slot and Lina is slotted to work a job in the pipes as a kind of plumber. However, the two swap jobs and attain a reasonable sort of happiness.

There is reason for concern though. The city is prone to blackouts that are happening with greater frequency and for longer periods. There are shortages of food and resources, and rationing is the word of the day. The appearance of giant moths, beetles, bees and moles are becoming more frequent and more dangerous. The city’s technology is breaking down with more and more machines simply failing to work.

The secret of Ember is that it is located deep underground. The Builders of Ember located it there after an unnamed catastrophe made life on the surface of Earth impossible. They also built a metal box with a timer set for 200 years, after which the box would open. The box is entrusted to the Mayor of Ember with strict instructions of Do Not Open until Christmas…200 years from now. The box is passed from Mayor to Mayor who keep the secret of the box’s existence from the people of Ember, until with 47 years to go a Mayor unexpectedly dies without passing the secret of the box to his successor. As a result, the box is put into storage, forgotten and ignored so when the box clicks down to zero, nobody notices.

Fortunately, it is locked in the home of Lina Mayfleet who discovers it. Meanwhile, Doon is discovering to his shock that the great machines that are keeping Ember alive are failing and nobody knows how to fix them. When the two of them go to the current Mayor (Murray) with their suspicions, all Hades breaks loose. It turns out that the Mayor is not only fully aware of the situation but is making precautions for his own survival at the expense of the citizens of Ember. The corrupt Mayor sends the troops out after the plucky kids, who have worked out that the box contains instructions on how to leave Ember and return to the surface, but can they escape their dying city before it takes them with it?

This is based on the first of a quartet of novels by Jeanne Duprau for young adults. This is director Gil Kenan’s second feature (his first was the marvelous animated feature Monster House) and he makes it visually arresting. The city of Ember itself is a rabbit warren, but it is the magnificent machines below the surface that make the grandest impression. This is obviously a decaying society, with lamps that fall from the sky, exposed wiring everywhere and a general air that everything is held together with duct tape and jury rigging. It looks like a city on the edge of falling apart.

The story is something of a parallel, with a 200 year old place grappling with a failing energy supply and environmental disasters. The old guard of the place is keeping the extent of the danger hidden from the citizenry who go about their lives (for the most part) like nothing is wrong, but the young people have a sense that they need to act and act soon. Sound like anywhere you know?

Ronan, who has already received an Oscar nomination in her young but brilliant career (for Atonement) has assembled an impressive body of work for someone so young, and does a wonderful job here, as does Treadaway. Far from being the smug, smart-assed teens we often see in the movies, they are smart, brave and real. They are onscreen for the bulk of the film and it is essential that the audience not only relate to them but like them, and I did.

This is quite a quality movie that took a critical lashing, another instance in which I think most of the critics simply blew it. The movie also crashed and burned at the box office, which is sad – I would have liked to have seen the sequels, but it is unlikely they will ever be made. Still, take comfort in that this is a rare instance of a kid’s movie that doesn’t talk down to its target audience, that treats them as intelligent, thinking people and appeals to their sense of wonder rather than their most base instincts. One City of Ember is worth a hundred G-Forces.

WHY RENT THIS: Smarter fare than most kid’s movies, with amazing set design.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pacing seemed a bit rushed, particularly towards the end.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some moments of jeopardy and peril, and the giant moles and moths might frighten smaller tykes; otherwise, this is suitable for most audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The set for the city of Ember was built in the paint hall in a former shipyard in Belfast, in the city’s Titanic Quarter near where the RMS Titanic was built.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Yes Men Fix the World

The Book of Eli


The Book of Eli

Tell them Eli's coming and Heaven's coming with him.

(Warner Brothers) Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Beals, Michael Gambon, Frances de la Tour, Malcolm McDowell, Tom Waits, Evan Jones, Joe Pingue, Chris Browning, Lora Martinez-Cunningham. Directed by the Hughes Brothers

There are those who say that faith and religion are to blame for all the world’s troubles. There are also those who say that the world would be a savage place without them.

The world as we know it has come to an end. War has ripped a hole in the ozone, allowing the sun’s radiation to cook the Earth. It is the apocalypse, and as we all know from watching films set in the post-Apocalyptic era, the Earth turns into the Old West.

Down the dusty pock-marked roads that are all that is left of the Interstates comes a walker, a middle-aged man – something that is rare in this world where both the good and the bad die young – carrying a satchel and armed to the teeth, as would be prudent in a time where law and civilization have broken down. Darwin’s law has become the only law that is enforced.

The man is Eli (Washington) and he carries with him something very valuable. Not just the trinkets he’s been able to pick up, mostly from corpses and the already-stripped houses that remain standing, but something worth dying for…maybe even worth killing for. It is the King James Bible, and it may be the last one left. After the war had decimated the planet, many of those who remained on it blamed religion for the war and Bible-burning became the new national pastime.

Eli is a man to be reckoned with, lightning quick and merciless with knives, as a group of scavenging hijackers who mean to rob him and eat him find out. He is also merciful and compassionate with the weak, as the woman (Martinez-Cunningham) who was used as bait also discovers.

Eli comes to a small town which looks uncannily like Tombstone, Arizona, mostly to get supplies and to recharge a battery charger. While he’s waiting for the Engineer (Waits) who runs the general store to charge the battery, he goes across the street to the Orpheum bar to fill his canteen. Some rough and tumble sorts led by Martz (Jones) try to mess with him and wind up writhing on the floor or dead. The leader of the town, Carnegie (Oldman) is impressed and is anxious for Eli to join his group of enforcers. Eli is unwilling; he has business to the West to which Carnegie responds “There’s nothing west of here.” Carnegie isn’t the sort to take no for an answer so he has Eli sleep on it, whether he wants to or not.

Carnegie sends his girlfriend in, blind Claudia (Beals) with food and drink. He then sends in Claudia’s daughter Solara (Kunis) to tempt him with baser charms. Eli turns her down but she begs him to allow her to stay the night and give Carnegie the illusion that she had done as he asked; if he does not, she tells him, her mother will pay the price for her failure. Eli relents and allows her to stay.

The next morning Solara inadvertently lets slip that Eli is carrying with him a book. Carnegie goes ballistic – this is the very book he has been sending bands of illiterate marauders out to retrieve. With it he can control the remaining populace and act as a kind of post-Apocalyptic messiah. He has to have this book! He and his right hand man Redridge (Stevenson) go running into Eli’s cell, only to find him gone. He hasn’t gone far and after a brutal gun battle in which Carnegie gets hit in the leg, Eli escapes with Solara chasing after him, eager to get away from her existence in the town.

The enraged Carnegie takes nearly all his enforcers in what vehicles remain and head out after him. Eli believes he is on a divine mission to take the Bible to safety, but with such a man on his tail can Eli reach safety even with heavenly assistance?

While much about the movie is basic Post-Apocalypse 101 from the Old West-style towns, the rusting cars abandoned on highways that have collapsed, the desert-like environment to the abundance of trenchcoats and shotguns, the concept is unique. It is not your usual action-adventure type of film that is usual for this genre (although there is plenty of both); it is also meant to be an examination of faith and belief.

Kudos for screenwriter Gary Whitta and the Hughes Brothers for trying something a little daring. It is not an easy sale sometimes for secular Hollywood to take on themes of morality and faith, but they do so here. I’m sure the presence of Denzel Washington in the project had more than a little to do with the studio taking a chance on it.

Washington is perhaps the most movie star-like actor out there today. He has the kind of screen presence and charisma that gives him appeal not only to African-American audiences who revere him, but also to white audiences who respect him, female audiences who adore him and male audiences who want to be like him. He carries films in the same way that Clint Eastwood once did. In fact, this is the most Eastwood-like of Washington’s performances ever, as he plays essentially a man with no name and of few words who comes into a town, kicks ass and fights injustice. It’s the kind of role few have tackled since Eastwood hung up his gunbelt.

Kunis has been getting a lot of high-profile roles lately, and she has a great deal of potential, but in many ways this was the wrong part for her. She seems far more adept at light comedies and romantic roles than in action movies. However, I was pleased to see Jennifer Beals do so well in this movie; after Flashdance she never really regained the kind of attention that movie brought her, but she is a talented performer as she shows undeniably here. Ray Stevenson, who was last seen playing the comic book character the Punisher is also very strong as Carnegie’s lackey.

Gary Oldman plays villains with a great deal of panache and you get the feeling that he has more fun with them than he does with characters like Sirius Black from the Harry Potter movies. He is certainly playing a demagogue – when we first meet Carnegie he’s reading a biography of Mussolini – but he’s not completely unsympathetic.

I have to mention that there is a bit of a twist ending here, one I didn’t see coming which is somewhat unusual these days, and it elevates the movie in my opinion. However, it also must be said that because the filmmakers are showing a world in which the sunlight is much brighter, the whole movie has a washed out, colorless look that is at times distracting. I know it’s probably a realistic look and I understand what the filmmakers were going for, but just the same it did wear a little bit on me personally. Just sayin’.

I’m not going to say this is a pleasant little film because there’s a good deal of brutality in it, but I found it to be a pleasant surprise. It was much better than most of the critics I’ve read and heard from made it out to be. Denzel is a fine actor and an engaging screen presence and while I hesitate to say he can do no wrong, he has for sure not done wrong here.

REASONS TO GO: A very nice twist at the end. Washington does his best Clint Eastwood and is surprisingly good at it. Oldman is always an engaging actor.

REASONS TO STAY: The film has a bit of a washed-out feeling that lacks color, which I found to be a bit distracting after awhile. Once you’ve seen one post-apocalyptic landscape, you’ve seen them all.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a great deal of brutality and some rough language. There’s also a suggestion of rape. Definitely not for the squeamish.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: On the wall of the room in which Eli is kept prisoner at the Orpheum is a poster for A Boy and His Dog, another post-apocalyptic movie.

HOME OR THEATER: It’s a bit washed-out from a cinematography standpoint, so a smaller screen might lose some detail. See it in a theater just to be on the safe side.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Darwin Awards

9


 

9 battles the terrifying Fabrication Machine in a bleak post-apocalyptic world.

9 battles the terrifying Fabrication Machine in a bleak post-apocalyptic world.

(Focus) Starring the voices of Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly, Christopher Plummer, John C. Reilly, Martin Landau, Crispin Glover, Alan Oppenheimer, Fred Tatasciore, Tom Kane, Helen Wilson. Directed by Shane Acker

Is our humanity found in the skin and bones we inhabit, or something else which resides within? And, once those skin and bones are gone, what becomes of humanity?

The future is a bleak place. Humankind is gone, wiped out by machines of their own making. The world is empty, devoid of any living thing, a monument to the hubris of our kind.

And yet, life perseveres. A rag doll awakens in a laboratory, ocular goggles blinking owlishly at a world he can’t understand. He has no name, only a number painstakingly painted on his back; the number 9 (Wood). As he gazes quizzically at the world around him, he notices movement; a doll, much like himself. Curious (and voiceless), he runs out into the ruined streets, past the body of an elderly human man.

The other rag doll sees the fear in 9 and gently tells him “I’m a friend.” He finds a speaker so that 9 might have voice. He is 2 (Landau), a wise rag doll out looking for an artifact, one that 9 happens to have with him. 2’s joy at finding the artifact is short-lived as they are attacked by the Beast, a cat-like machine that takes 2 and the artifact with it. 9 runs away and is found by 5 (Reilly) who had been looking for 2.

5 brings 9 to the Sanctuary, where their pope-like leader 1 (Plummer) interrogates 9 before accepting him into their small band, which includes the prophet-like 6 (Glover) and the large, bullying 8 (Tatasciore). 9, however, can’t accept just leaving 2 to his fate and convinces 5 to go with him on a rescue mission.

They go to an abandoned factory where the Beast has locked 2 in a birdcage. The Beast is occupied with the artift, allowing 9 and 5 to rescue 2, but the Beast attacks. They are saved by 7 (Connelly), a rebellious rag doll who had left the Sanctuary to fight back against the Beast. Unfortunately, 9 inadvertently awakens something far more dangerous than the Beast and must convince the remaining rag dolls that they must fight together against the thing that wants them destroyed.

This is based on a short film Acker directed several years ago that made the film festival circuit (Da Queen and I first encountered it at the Florida Film Festival and were extremely impressed). The short was silent and extremely well-made. So, too, is this well-animated but the story is a little less focused. This seems more like an action movie done as animated CGI, whereas the Short was something new entirely.

The imagery is definitely the reason to go see this. The ruined world is one of newsreels, vaguely Eastern European architecture and an almost steampunk sensibility, science fiction that shows the past as future. The mechanized creatures are terrifying, so much so that I wouldn’t recommend small children go and see this. The rag dolls have distinct personalities, from the fearful 1 to the inquisitive 9. Each seems to have a specific purpose, although it isn’t clear whether that was intentional or not. That is one of the maddening elements of the story.

I don’t mind a story that requires viewers to connect the dots – I encourage it as I think sometimes our intellect needs pleasing as well as our sense of wonder. However, if you’re going to do that, you do need to provide dots for us to connect. The feature is only 79 minutes long – barely over an hour – and I thought it could have used another 10-15 minutes to give a bit more backstory, particularly in regards to the Scientist (Oppenheimer) and his intentions.

I liked the movie enough to recommend it, especially due to the vocal performances which are wonderful, and the visuals which are breathtaking. As bleak as the world of 9 is, it is still a world worth exploring. I just would have wished that Acker and producers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted) would have given us more to explore.

REASONS TO GO: Acker has created a breathtaking visual world that is worth exploring. The voice actors give each doll a distinct personality.

REASONS TO STAY: It seems like whole parts of the story are missing, particularly the backstory of the Scientist.

FAMILY VALUES: Terrifying mechanical monsters make this a no-no for small children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The sanctuary that 1 leads the characters to is based on the Cathedral of Notre Dame, famously the sanctuary of the Hunchback.

HOME OR THEATER: I would see it in a theater just for the experience of the visuals.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Standard Operating Procedure