Like any sci-fi masterpiece, Nine Days offers escapism with its fantastical concept while providing insightful commentary on ways of the real world. In particular, it examines how we find purpose in our lives. How we feel we’re brought onto this Earth to fulfill certain callings even if ideas of what that calling may be could change as we go on in our long lives. The only thing that’s guaranteed when we’re born is our resemblance to those who created us. Other than that, once we get brought into this world, we’re meant to just simply live for the moment each day since what we feel we were meant to do on our time on Earth could evolve as we go along.
It’s a lesson that protagonist Will (Winston Duke) is forced to learn as the film progresses. As he spends nine days interviewing five pre-existing souls, he determines which one of them is most worthy of being born. Those who fail who move on are allowed to relive one moment from their experience before disappearing forever. Among those candidates is Emma (Zazie Beetz) who, along with Will’s assistant Kyo (Benedict Wong), forces Will to reconsider his pragmatic yet incredulous worldview.
As part of Will’s interview process, he has his subjects watch videos capturing the lives of souls Will has chosen to exist on Earth to test whether they have a hardened enough exterior to confront the vileness that life has to offer. The mulishness he puts on his subjects can be felt by anyone who’s gone through depression and has been taught to keep their emotions in check. Particularly, any male who lives with the condition. Men are constantly told words like “Take it like a man!” when we’re given so much as a harsh lecture with showing emotion being conflated as weakness.
Even if Nine Days isn’t primarily about depression, its sly dissection of the hyper-masculinity that casts a looming shadow over those with mental health struggles allows it to set itself apart from Pixar’s Soul, the film it may receive inevitable comparisons to due to its similarly philosophical storyline on the nature of life’s purpose and how it also features a Black protagonist. While it may read like Soul but from the vantage point of the counselors in the Great Before, Nine Days still thrives on its own merits.
Instead of transporting us to the awe-inspiring animated landscape that is the Great Before, we’re taking to an isolated beach house setting that feels otherworldly even if we know the film doesn’t take place on Earth. Even with the lack of extravagant visual effects, and real-world filming location, thanks to writer/director Edson Oda, the ethereal concept is enough for the audience to believe they’re being transported into another realm.
The movie’s central performances are another high mark. After proving himself as a consummate supporting/ensemble player, Winston Duke successfully graduates to leading man status as he brings the taut, reclusive Will to life. Meanwhile, Benedict Wong is a pitch-perfect supporting player as Will’s trusty assistant Kyo, leaving a mark with his wry humor and savage honesty whenever Kyo calls Will out on his hypocrisy.
While the interview subjects aren’t written with much character development, Zazie Beetz’ Emma is the closest one to a fully-formed character out of all of them. Beetz expertly plays Emma as both an emblematic paragon of goodness and a figure of humanistic curiosity. Someone who represents the good in the world Will doesn’t see while undergoing a personal arc as she learns the world’s ways so that she’s not reduced to being a mere symbol.
Emma’s sensible spirit serves as an embodiment of the message Nine Days aims to hammer down. The world can be a cruel place. Such a cruel place that it causes people like Will to force those around them to see its cruelness the way they do. But when we’re brought into this cruel world, we’re never prepared for its faults nor do we have a set life plan. We’re meant to simply live and go moment by moment even if advice like that can be easy to forget. Despite our tendency to overlook that message during our toughest times, the message still remains and it’s showcased effectively in this wonderfully minimalist piece of science fiction.