What does it mean to be alive? What if before being born, we had to interview for the position? While not the first time that a film asks existential questions like what it means to be human, “Nine Days,” Edson Oda’s feature-film debut, they are asked again, yet still in a different way. What if we already knew about the world, and already had our preconceived notions about how the world is, and what can be done about it better or differently?
Note: Some spoilers will be given but will try and remain as vague as possible.
The film starts pretty emptily, starting with Will (Winston Duke) watching different people’s lives, filmed in first person. Watching all of the screens, every day, taking notes. And it is revealed that Will is not just watching these tapes for fun, but he is closely monitoring the lives of those previously selected to live. Other than applicants when one life ends and needs to be filled, Will is joined by his friend, and previous applicant, Kyo (Benedict Wong). Kyo helps assist Will around the house and with the different tasks given to applicants.
Kyo will often pop into different interviewers’ homes and likes to indulge in their selections’ lives. One that interests both, and that Will develops quite an attachment to, a violin prodigy known as Amanda. When they gather to enjoy her latest concerto, she dies unexpectedly and thus begins the search for her replacement.
Among the applicants for the empty slot, we have the care-free Alex (Tony Hale), the artistic Michael (David Rysdahl), the romantic Maria (Arianna Ortiz), the pessimistic Kane (Bill Skarsgård, and lastly the free-spirited Emma (Zazie Beetz). And as the title suggests, they each will have nine days to prove why they should be chosen to move on from this pre-existence life, and on to the real world as a newborn child. All five of the applicants have their interviews carried out at Will’s home in the desert, with only the natural landscape of whatever state of being they exist in.
What is amazing about this film is that nothing is ever really explained more than it needs to be. In something like Pixar’s “Soul,” there is quite a bit of explaining to the world and process of selection. In “Nine Days” however, it’s thrown at the audience much more forward. Albeit, both films are very different in both their approach and target audience. So it is to be understood the difference between the two. Instead of focusing on the different aspects of how the final choice will be made, we focus instead on the characters and their worldview. Whether you view everything in life as a cynic, or maybe through a religious lens, or whatever it might be. There’s room for everything.
Most of Will’s questions have this very existential filter on them, that he uses for picking the soul to continue. Many hypothetical situations, and often very heavy. Because that can be when people will show their true natures. In one of the situations, Will shows the applicants a showdown between a current human Fernando, and how he became to be paralyzed. Varied responses come, such as saying they would have fought back without hesitation. Others, making a joke out of the situation, and laugh it off as being too heavy.
And throughout this nine-day free trial, some applicants do get eliminated. But before doing so, they get to pick one moment they would like to experience before ceasing existence. Moments that might be taken for granted. Walking along the beach, feeling the sand between your toes. The feeling of waves crashing around your feet. Or even riding your bike down an empty street, feeling the wind through your hair and watching the people and the cars and the buildings fly by you as you pass them.
“Nine Days,” through all of asking what it means to be alive, takes the time to celebrate what you receive from existence. All of these small moments add to a larger interpretation of what life is. But we don’t just get exposed to the beauties of life, but to the cruelties that come along. The endless bullying of a child, or the death of a prodigy with a loving family. Winston Duke even describes his downsides. How he had loved the act of performing. How that was the one thing that made him feel alive. But he never pursued that feeling, instead going through the motions of life and never amounting to the person that he wanted to be and knew that he could have been.
Other characters like Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgård, and Zazie Beetz, all help to highlight the different aspects of humanity. Giving very thoughtful, and real performances. They lift the film from a high fantasy about natural selection into a deeper drama with passion and heart. The film has visually impressive cinematography (Wyatt Garfield), and the music (Antonio Pinto) is very lovely with a lovely and grounded orchestral theme.
The film initially premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. Released in theaters by Sony Pictures Classics initially on July 30, 2021. The film will be available on Blu-ray and digital VOD on November 2, 2021. And it is definitely something to be watched before the year is over.