The Soul’s Elements: On the Movie “9” (spoilers)

Spoilers galore ahead.

Pajiba’s review of “9” covers what’s wrong with the movie: the dialogue is the most pressing problem, and the story is perhaps not as well-crafted as it could have been.

Those of you who have seen the movie, where dolls (named only with numbers) who are aspects of the soul/mind have to deal with the problem of a mechanistic intellect’s creation, are probably wondering how the dolls add up. Here’s a very provisional list of what I think at the moment:

  1. caution
  2. curiosity
  3. memory
  4. same as 3, given that memory is dual: one stores a memory, then needs to retrieve it
  5. ?
  6. mysticism
  7. independence
  8. will to power/agency
  9. daring

I think you can see why I’ve chosen the terms I have: “caution” can rule “curiosity” and “independence” to a degree when the issue is survival only. It fails to rule them once a rough peace has been created, and 1’s fight with 9 is explosive. Moreover, “caution,” “agency” (8 – note how he is incapable of doing nearly anything without strict orders) and “mysticism” (fragmented knowledge of the past/future) combine to form the first political order of the movie. “Caution” claims rule with religious auspices (this seems alien to us, but it makes perfect sense in Greek tragedy), asserting that any desire for knowledge is an unnecessary risk. It is bolstered by a real fear of what’s out there, one that can easily turn superstitious, but in this case is perfectly justified.

For the other “order” is ignoring the issue of survival and thriving because of accidental neglect. I think that’s why 5 (?) and 2 (curiosity) are sticking with 1, 8, 6 initially: there’s room to build at least in the burned out church, and tinker and scavenge. That’s happening with 3 & 4, whom we assume are aided by 7 (“independence”) who has left 1. But again, this isn’t really an order: 7 has exceptional dexterity and agility and can fend off the beast – perhaps the last machine – that wishes to resurrect what may have been its “source” towards the opening of the movie. But the beast has no interest in destroying a dark library – yet – and “independence” can only fend it off without decoys, without someone ready to make a sacrifice. And there you have the first principle of order – not merely the willingness to use violence, but the willingness to accept the consequences of such a use.

1 comes off awfully in the movie, even as 9 causes death, something that for all of 1’s faults he could almost never be accused of (he does send 2 out on a risky mission and justifies this in the harshest way. How much of this is him trying to kill 2 is debatable, given that 1’s coldness can be called an awareness of risk). And the thing about death – despite the movie’s “they’re free now” line at the end – is that we, and perhaps the dolls, have the expectation that after being “trapped” in the machine they will rise again. That expectation is utterly foiled, leading one to wonder if 1 knew the truth all along: that death is final, life is a gift, and waiting out the beast that begins the movie is a perfectly sound strategy. What is not sound is to repeat the mistake of man.

What is the mistake of man? Is it simply ruthlessness, being bestial? The movie indicates this to a degree, but when one considers 9’s destructiveness, it isn’t that simple. It actually looks like the mistake is combining our destructive tendencies with our creative powers: in other words, order comes about because people understand limit, that violence has consequences. To combine creation and destruction is to suggest that there is no limit.

5 sits in the middle, with one eye, and only leaves the realm of caution because he owes another his life. He is responsible for creating the trap which kills the pterodactyl and many of the machines via the barrel bomb. He has to learn from 2, 7 and 9 how to handle himself, despite the implements and training he is equipped with from 2.  1, it should be noted, is very effective: he gets his cannon built and hurts the machine; he removes his cape and destroys the pterodactyl; he sacrifices himself and allows the final victory to be won.

I think 5 is the question of looking either at the past or the future, and it makes sense then that the list has parallels built into it: 1 and 9 parallel most sharply, as do 2 and 8; the two dolls dedicated to memory are what mysticism and independence depend on, they’re not actively seeking new knowledge although happy when they can get it. At the end, I think we’re left with 9, 7, 3, 4 only. The past is gone and so is the fearful piety that characterized it: the soul, no longer alienated from the earth, regenerates life anew. The movie is pious in the way Tolkien was: the remaining characters are now living their faith, no longer bound by superstition, and fully aware of their mortality and purpose.

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