Is 9 an anti-science film? Interview with director Shane Acker

Is 9, the new Tim Burton produced animated feature, anti science?

This the question that has been troubling me since before I was approached by the film makers to feature content on SciencePunk. And it's also the reason I accepted - hoping that in payment I could pose that question to the man behind it all, director and creator of the 9 world, Shane Acker.

Why would I think such a thing? Watch the trailer below carefully (just tune out the annoying VJ at the start).

Did you catch that, chums? "Science has turned against us" Whatever does that mean? It's nice to see that for once, a scientist gets to be the protagonist (even if he doesn't get a name... well, at least he has his own Facebook page). And what's this business of a scientist turning to the "dark sciences" to create sentient beings? Technology run amok, machines on the rampage, the triumph of spirituality - does anyone else feel that they are in Kansas, if you get my drift?

So what does Shane have to say about this? I caught up with him last week to find out.

SciencePunk: The central character in the film is a scientist - but he starts off as a toymaker. That's quite the career change...

Shane Acker: Ha, yes it is. I wanted to make a reference to Blade Runner, to the artificial intelligence of his toys. They become his friends. All of the characters are doll-like, puppets, like Pinocchio, and the Scientist is this Geppetto-style character. I wanted to convey how he likes to play, being creative to bring these to life.

SP: But the Scientist's first creation, the machines, end up attacking mankind. The trailer runs with the memorable phrase "Science has turned against us!". Is this a story in the Victorian tradition, like Shelley's Frankenstein, a warning of technology and the unrestricted pursuit of science?

SA: Yes - although that quote is doublespeak - those in power are blaming it on the technology, and the Scientist, even though that technology was corrupted by the dictator himself. The stitchpunks are a second chance at that technology. It is a cautionary tale, with this Oppenheimer-type Scientist, funded by the authorities and pursuing his own creativity, but blind to the consequences. Oppenheimer's technology is fantastic, the pure scientific innovation of splitting atoms, but it fed into the most devastating weapon the world has ever known. Ever since those weapons were created, he and us have been trying to undo what we did. So a scientific goal must be measured with moral issues.

SP: The book that goes with the movie describes how the Scientist turns to the "dark sciences" to create the stitchpunks. The name, along with the symbology used, seems to be a thinly-veiled metaphor for magic...

SA: I don't know... I would say that he turns to precursors of science, like alchemy, trying to find his sorcerer's stone, and that leads him down a path. He wants to create machines tempered with a human soul, and he sacrifices himself for them. They become this strange hybrid, a machine with human soul inside. In some ways it's in cyborg territory, just as in our own lives we're becoming more dependent upon machines. How do you keep a soul if you start to become a machine? Do they accept themselves as machines or do they consider themselves human?

SP: Is this a triumph of spirituality over science? Does it imply there is something about humanity that science can't describe?

SA: I think so. There's some spirituality in their creation, some indescribable thing that can't be broken down into scientific terms. Though we can start to describe brain as a complex collection of nerves that creates thought, you can say that we're complex amino acid collections, how do you describe that consciousness that humans have?

SP: What is it that separates the two creations, making one set "evil" and another good?

SA: The machines are created purely by raw science and intellect, weren't tempered with emotional side, of human consciousness. The stitchpunks represent difference parts of the Scientist's psyche, following in the tradition of Aristotle's definition of the different facets of man. These creations represent humanity, flaws and all. That's key to the mystery of just how they came to be and where they came from.

2 concept artConcept art of character 2

So, is 9 an anti-science film? Perhaps not, but I do think Shane started off with a skewed view of science. It's not just toymakers that are creative! Scientists have to be, if they are to solve problems that no-one else has. Now, the question of tempering scientific investigation with morality - that's a big one.

So here's the deal: I have 9 - COUNT THEM, NINE - marvellous glossy limited edition (999 copies, natch) books to give away. They feature glorious technicolor prints from the film, notes from Shane Acker and the cast, and will most likely be delivered in a very sweet sackcloth err.. sack. VERY NICE LOOT.

I will be giving one away every day from now until the release of the film, in 9 days time. So, for the first book, answer me this: should scientific investigation be tempered by emotional considerations? Or is technology neutral? Should scientists bear the responsibility of their creations?

Best answer wins, decided by an arbitrary first-name-out-of-a-hat process!


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I saw the trailer, and it looked interesting, even though (from the questions) gets a bit new-agey in his spiritual woo. I'd love to see him define "spiritual" in a way that makes sense.

Should science be tempered by emotional considerations? Well, science is the process of investigation, and I don't think any area should be off limits, but the methods of doing the investigation should be tempered somehow. You can argue that vivisection is wrong from emotional or rational reasons, but both have the same results. We are animals with emotions, and whether we like it or not, they do influence us. There are also social or political concerns as well, and if we want to live in this society, we should heed them, while working to change them to allow us to proceed to learn (assuming that is ethical, of course - something like the vicisection or waterboarding does not qualify as ethical).

Technology by itself is neutral. Only when human (or other sentient being) interacts with it can it be anything more than that. The same way a rock is neutral until you throw it at someone, so is technology. Even bombs can have positive uses (explosives to clear land, for example, in a rather spectacular fashion), but they aren't good or bad in and of themselves. Sure, they were designed as weapons, but are weapons good or bad - depends on their use and who is using them, and who is on the other end. It's like the idea of morality - lightning is neither good nor bad, but if it hits you...

Likewise, we should bear responsibility for everything we make or do, but you can't take it too far. If I build a chair, and someone takes it and kills somebody with it, then I am not responsible for that. However, if I make a knife for someone to use to kill someone else, and he does...a little different. Scientists may have responsibility for ethical experiments, etc, but the responsibility for the technology we use should be all of ours. We, as a people, a nation, a planet, a species, all bear the responsibility for what we do with ourselves and our lives, and we are the ultimate arbitrer. Hmm - hope that doesn't come out as wishy-washy or too vague - trying to be general without specifics leaves it that way.

Well, those are my answers.

No technology can be useful .Technology has a purpose, and the intent of the creation automatically imbues ideology. Oppenheimer was not some blessed innocent unaware of the purpose of his work. That he had moral qualms after the fact does not negate that he worked on a weapon of mass destruction. To some extent it is possible to say that research is pure, and it is the uses to which the results of that research is put that is questionable. Science doesn't kill people, people kill people. That isn't an argument that carries much weight with me.

That isn't to say that research should be banned, or suppressed, far from it. I am in favour of gun control, but I do not believe that they should all be destroyed. In some situations (zombie uprisings for example) when they are regrettably necessary. What is useful is regulation, and in the case of technology and science it is hard to see exactly how that is possible. Free flow of ideas is vital.

This is where individual scientists do have to take some responsibility. Awareness of the implications of research is necessary, and should be considered before, during, and after any research undertaken. Looking at the Manhattan project it is not a cut and dried case that this was research that should not have been conducted. The groundwork had been completed decades before, and eventually it would be discovered by someone else, and at the time it could have been the Nazis. The results of would have been horrific.

So, no, no real answers to how or even why, but for freebies I can ramble with the best of 'em.

Let's keep the accounting fair.

Oppenheimer built a weapon to fight the Nazis in a war. He knew - as any rational thinker MUST acknowledge - that once the potential energy within the atom was recognized, splitting that atom becomes but a matter of time. It's a terrible thing to build a weapon, but I'd say it would be more terrible to let the Nazi's build one first. Sure, with hindsight's 20/20 vision we know nobody else was close, that the weapon was not needed to defeat the Nazis, and frankly would not have been absolutely required to defeat the Japanese. But whether in that war or another, it would have been built by somebody and it would have been used.

But so be it. He knew what he built and no matter how good his reasons he has to take some responsibility for its subsequent use.

Can he get the credit for all the good stuff too? Power? Nuclear medicine? How about the other numerous spin offs from the Manhattan project (parallel computing etc.)? Even simply NOT having to storm the beaches of mainland Japan and war to the knife and what that would have done to the collective psyches of the US and Japan?

If science has to take the hit for weapons and the ills of technology (or society's use of it) I think it only fair that it take credit for antibiotics, agricultural improvements, medicine, computing, telecommunication and all of the other things that make life something other than "nasty, brutish, and short".

How about credit for Norman Borlaug: Responsible for saving a Billion from starvation? I think that stacks up favorably to Oppie's body count alone. Toss in Penicillin? Germ theory of disease? X-rays, eradicating smallpox?

By all means hold science responsible for the fruits of its labors...

It's necessary for some level of emotional attachment/detachment for a scientist as long as that scientist is a human. For example, the person running the tests and measuring quantities has to be reliable and driven to be a good scientist. On the other hand, there is that robot scientist, 'Adam', (which still need humans, mind you) who can design and run it's own experiments probably better than any human could. In my view, people are necessary in science in order to ask the important questions and make informed hypothesis which could then be tested by robots. It is truly amazing how rapidly technology is advancing.

Surgons and murderers both use knives.

A scientific discovery is morally neutral. The (good or bad) application of technology is up to society.

A scientist, with good intentions, cannot be held responsible if their discoveries are abused by someone else.

You are asking a question that is at least as old as the story of Pandora's box. There are three basic facts at work. You cannot "undiscover something". Scientists are not omniscient. Applications and inventions arise from basic research and theories about how the world around us works.

On the surface, it sounds good to say that scientists should bear the responsibilities of their creations. What does that really mean? Do we condemn Oppenheimer for building the first working Atomic bomb? Do we condemn Einstein for showing us the awesome power contained within an atom? Do we condemn God for designing a universe where such power is accessible to men?

I do not advocate a Josef Mengele approach to science. The process of science should not be disconnected from our basic humanity. The essence of science, though, is a quest to understand, and ultimately control, the secrets of the world around us. If we want to be more than cave dwellers and hunter gatherers, we have to accept that science offers great promise and great peril. The two go hand in hand. We don't have a way to see the future. We are rats in a maze. Every possible avenue could be a dead end or a road to the cheese. We have no choice but to explore the possibilities and hope we reach the cheese.

should scientific investigation be tempered by emotional considerations?
You can't help it, but please try anyway.

Or is technology neutral?
(I'll ignore that "or" since I don't understand it) Emotionally? Of course not. Morally? Yes.

Should scientists bear the responsibility of their creations?
I'm assuming moral responsibility. Not a very meaningful question of the creation is outside the sphere of morality. Which it is.

Do I get a pony?

@Craig. An honest question, not a rhetorical device - Do you believe that guns don't kill people, rather that people kill people? I think the stance that you are defending is analogous. Would you agree?

Personally I believe science has developed generally in-line with when we are ready to use it; for example although atomic bombs have been used, we have so far managed not to blow the world up. Some will push the boundaries, many will hold them back, but ultimately for whatever reason it kind of balances out.
So in summary, yes, but that's also why the process works.

I believe it is partly intent that should determine if a scientist should be responsible for the negative actions made with their discovery. If someone discovers something with the intent, or purpose of being used for destructive ends, then yes by all means hold them responsible for the destruction their invention causes. If, however, someone develops something that has an obvious useful, and non destructive or harmful application, and is developed for such a means, and it is later used in a harmful manner, the person who developed it into a harmful or destructive tool should be the one held responsible. Science, in of itself, is neutral, and only the intent behind it makes it good or bad.

Also, @ Simon: Guns, as a whole, do not kill people. There are guns, however, that are designed to kill people. If I sell someone a hunting rifle, I am assuming they will hunt game with it, not shoot someone they are mad at. However, if I'm making Saturday night specials, those were designed to kill people. So having a gun, in the broad sense of the term, means that you have a tool that launches a projectile at high velocity. If you have a certain kind of gun, that can add a whole different meaning. Intent, not the tool in of itself, leads to the use.

By Mike Darnell (not verified) on 01 Sep 2009 #permalink

The winner, as selected by the capriciousness of, is Simon.

Simon wins the prize!

Simon, please send your details to me at, and CONGRATULATIONS!

"Should scientific investigation be tempered by emotional considerations? Or is technology neutral? Should scientists bear the responsibility of their creations?"

The knowledge of the underlying science by which a technology works is neutral, but the way that knowledge is applied has consequences on people and the environment and therefore must be tempered by moral and ethical considerations. I think the movie probably points out that not only are scientists who invent applications responsible for using their technology appropriately, but so is anyone else who can manipulate the technology - ie, the dictator. It is unclear how much responsibility individual scientists should bear for discoveries or inventions that can be manipulated for unethical purposes when their own intentions are not immoral, but I am reluctant to support insisting that scientists should be obligated to censor themselves or hide their work for fear of what others might do with it. I think that the responsibility for using technology ethically falls on each individual user rather than the inventor.

I saw the trailer, and it looked interesting, even though (from the questions) gets a bit new-agey in his spiritual woo. I'd love to see him define "spiritual" in a way that makes sense.

Should scientific investigation be tempered by emotional considerations?


Or is technology neutral?


Should scientists bear the responsibility of their creations?


*Should scientific investigation be tempered by emotional considerations?

That's a hard question. Consider the scientists at Los Alamos labs, edging away at this problem, and considering and reconsidering their tasks. Ultimately creating something destructive, and in the same light giving us this understanding of the universe.

We can use Oppenheimer quoting from the bhagavad gita
"I am become death"

In some sense, his words were meant to reflect the seriousness of the situation and in another sense to reflect the new age of science that has occurred.

*Should scientists bear the responsibility of their creations?
The ethics of science really lay in the scientist. He does bare a certain burden of his advancement, but the goal of science is to learn, even in the dark doors.

We shouldn't be talking about what we are unwilling to study, because there is too much to study. We now have computers able to do vast amounts of replication and data analysis. What we cannot do in the lab, we can do on them.

should scientific investigation be tempered by emotional considerations?

Given that humans are emotional beings (not to mention political beings) the better question is "is it possible not to?"

Or is technology neutral?

Intent is the keyword here. A non-sentient mechanical part cannot take sides. Technology is neutral; people are not.

BTW, people kill people. They make guns to help them kill their fellow man. usually if an inventor comes up with a better way to kill people, we make him a hero, or the military and/or the public makes him rich by buying his product.

Who is responsible when the gun is used to break the law? The shooter, not the gun manufacturer, at least according to the laws we now have.

Who is responsible for the lives lost at Hiroshima and Nagasaki? That would be Franklin D Roosevelt, the President of the USA at the time, who gave the order to deliver the payloads. He is directly responsible for about 100,000 deaths, probably over 90% of whom were innocent civilians.

The popular American hero FDR has never been prosecuted for a war crime, as far as I know. Anyone interested in taking up the cause? If not, is that a morally questionable stance to take?

Should scientists bear the responsibility of their creations?

Creations may have unforeseen consequences. Although Oppenheimer may have known the purpose of his work was to kill people, there was no way the young Einstein could have foreseen the events of 1944 when he originally gave us E=MC2, which is actually the science that made the Bomb possible.

These are not easy questions to answer. I don't think people do anything entirely free of either emotional or political motives. If you ask a scientist "why did you become a scientist?" you are going to get a story of how a youngster was emotionally impacted by science. You will not get the answer "because I didn't want to feel anything, and science offered me a a way to be totally neutral."

Who is responsible for the lives lost at Hiroshima and Nagasaki? That would be Franklin D Roosevelt, the President of the USA at the time, who gave the order to deliver the payloads. He is directly responsible for about 100,000 deaths, probably over 90% of whom were innocent civilians.

The popular American hero FDR has never been prosecuted for a war crime, as far as I know. Anyone interested in taking up the cause? If not, is that a morally questionable stance to take?

Erm, actually it was President Harry Truman that gave the order to nuke Japan. So FDR was not responsible for that. Even if he was, it would be fairly hard to prosecute FDR for war crimes, since he's dead, and so is Truman.

So next time you feel like jumping on the morality horse, fearlessly charging at the naysayers, how about you get your facts straight first?

"How do you keep a soul if you start to become a machine?"

This bugs the hell out me.
Why would you lose your soul if you start to become a machine?

If (as seems incredibly unlikely) the "soul" is actually something distinct, there is no reason to presume it would be diluted by bodies with less meat and more mechanics. For a "soul" which is just individual consciousness and identity, so long as there is continuity there is no problem.

All that said, I think I will be able to suspend my disbelief long enough to really enjoy 9. I do wish that these issues were handled more sensibly though... crap like this ruins after movie conversations for me.


It is not at all clear whether nuking Nagasaki and Hiroshima was a war crime. The international law in 1945 did not offer the civilians that much protection as it does now.

Anyway: what other choices did the USA have at the time?

By Roman Werpachowski (not verified) on 07 Sep 2009 #permalink

I personally think the cause and effect is about-face. We seem to constantly see it proposed (and here yet again) that it is advances that aren't "tempered by emotional considerations" or a "soul"(?) that are the threat or cause of the worst of actions. I'd say, rather, that it is the emotional considerations that are the cause of these actions and technological directions.

It's emotions such as fear, paranoia, anger, greed, ambition, and desire for punishment of "others" resulting in dehumanisation of the enemy (in the case of human wars) or the denial of the capability to suffer, etc (animal abuse in large-scale production). Spirituality, which seems to be pointed to repeatedly as a "tempering agent" has all too often been the differentiator or simply the source of "righteous justification". Just look at various cases through our history including the inquisition, concentration camps, development of various weapons including weapons of mass destruction, etc. Technology might have provided the tools, but it was the "emotional tempering" that gave us the motivation and direction.

I saw the movie on its opening day and after watching it onscreen and reading the above Q&A here are my thoughts on the question posed.

To answer any question, you must first ask yourself from where does this question spring? Many of the poster's before me have tried to link the events of the movie with a similar scientific discovery gone evil only to the same old arguement and confusion. The ultimate question that must be answered is: what is the purpose of science? It is from the answer to this question that we understand two very important and age old truths: 1) what kind of person you are and 2) why are we always at war. Because within the confines of the arguement "What is the purpose of science" the asker of the question must also become the answerer. If you ask, is science good or bad then you can clearly show examples to prove either case and thus acheive a deadlock of ideas. Similarly, the question of scientists being responsible can throw a group into a more classical debate of ignorance versus omniscience (the ability to be all-knowing); no one can know everything and thus how can any person know the full extent of their actions despite their intent. So it is with disdain that we must begin to realize that the other "topical" discussions are fruitless because they are without merit. That is they do not expose the viwer or the participant to any greater truth; they just allow for either side to become entrenched in their individual mindset. Thus, the question "What is the purpose of science" calls into question the validity of the field as well as the individual's own agendas and makes them "fully involved" in the conversation and thus open to attack or defense depending on who is involved. It is only with this type of discussion can anything truly be learned; and the learning is not so much about the subject matter as it is about ourselves and the hidden parts of our consciousness and sub-consciousness that we like to keep hidden.

To answer my own question, the purpose of science is very clear to me. To investigate and analyze the laws, rules, bonds, particles and all pieces both visible, invisible and theoretical in order to take full advantage of the resources and offerings of the physical universe.

The second question that then must be asked is "Why?" The eternal question of both young and ageless; why commands the questioned to give an account for what they believe. And it is with this question that I answer that it is my belief that man seeks to investigate all things in this physical world in order to control and gain, what is seen in his/her eyes, as power. Therefore, simply stated in a more eloquent form, "Science is the study of the acquisition of power by the manipulation of the physical world around us".

So the million dollar question is, "good or evil?" Notice how each subsequent question becomes more basic than the previous question. It is with this line of reasoning that we find that all ideas whether religious or secular in nature trace back to "the source". Can this debate be settled? You can still find many people who can wage an adequate debate over the ideas to prove the goodness or evilness of something but that is where the source comes in to play. Where does your source come from and I can tell you what you believe in.

For what it is worth, science is in and of itself a great pass time but as an end a useless endeavor. That is because power will always be the goal of man and its unquenchable thirst will only lead to more blood, tears and death. This is not an end in and of itself it is only a dead end for all those who do not understand the order and the source. The only way to escape the game, the power struggle, the maze is to challenge the enemy and win.

"The best opponent will always hide in the very last place you will ever look" - Julius Cesar

By jonnyreb03 (not verified) on 11 Sep 2009 #permalink

jonnyreb03 So you're saying that no wisdom, scientific nor religious, can give us peace? That all of our uniquely human thought modes are ultimately responsible for effectively killing each other with our minds? That the only way to take the blood off our hands is to shut down our higher brain functions and become zombie-like?

You realize this is the kind of mental detox that precedes an establishment of fascism, don't you?

And what's the deal with posting on September 11?