Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within Review
By Joe Lozito
Such Splendid Animation
There is a wonderful paradox which pervades "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within", the new computer-generated movie based on the video game of the same name. From a strictly visual standpoint, the film is like nothing you've ever seen. In terms of story, however, you've seen it all before.
The most amusing part of "Final Fantasy" is playing "Name That Voice". The creators (or should they be called programmers?) have assembled quite a virtual cast. Ming-Na, the voice of "Mulan", supplies substantial emotion for our heroine Dr. Aki Ross. The stalwart, hunky hero is voiced by Alec Baldwin, whose character looks a little too much like Ben Affleck (both actors, humorously enough, were in this summer's "Pearl Harbor"). The role of the elderly scientist which, in a live action movie would have been played by, say Donald Sutherland, is voiced by (what luck!) Donald Sutherland. The villain is as evil as he needs to be thanks to the voice of James Woods and the visage of Michael Ironside. Even Ving Rhames is on hand as the token African-American soldier.
Interestingly, despite the multi-cultural crew, the characters are as American as a Hollywood blockbuster. What can be understood of the plot, however, carries the sensibility of the Japanese Anime genre: nature, sacrifice, destiny, death and rebirth. It seems that a meteor crashed on late 21st century Earth bringing with it an invading army of barely visible phantasms bent on taking over the planet. Or are they? Even in the end we don't really know, though several characters claim "Ah, I understand!" Of course, there are two ways of dealing with the invasion: (a) firing the huge, space-mounted Zeus cannon (the bad way); or (b) assembling the eight "spirits" which when combined will form a "wave" that will ... I don't really know. But it's the good way.
Anyway, who cares what the plot is. The animation is what's on trial here and it is at times unbelievable. Much hype has been given to the heroine's hair, each strand of which is computer controlled. Yes, that is astounding, but at times her hair looks almost too thick. The best moments in the film are not the close ups, but the visual landscapes and action scenes which are at times beautiful and frightening.
The animators still have some trouble with mouths, hand movements, and fast body motion, but that's nitpicking. Occasionally, in certain lighting, the animators get everything just right and those moments can be transcendent. Suddenly, you forget you're watching an animated film, but at the same time you're not watching reality. At those moments, "Final Fantasy" takes you somewhere unlike anything before it. Sadly, you are dragged back to banality by scenes stolen from the old cliché's home - the "go on without me, sir" scene; the "last minute rescue from above" scene; the "slow motion 'Nooooooo!' while firing a gun" scene. It's as if the creators took a handful of classic movie scenes and animated them. But, boy, did they animate them.
To call "Final Fantasy" revolutionary might be an overstatement. The film has the look of the "cut-scenes" from the video game (the interludes between game play) but taken to an insanely realistic level. It is debatable if it's even worth creating realistic human characters via animation. Why bother spending a reported $140 million on a film like this? After all, we have human actors already (though at times, Mr. Baldwin is out-acted by his avatar). It's not that I think animated characters will replace humans, but shouldn't animation be used to create heroic green ogres or wisecracking rabbits?
Only time will tell if, twenty years from now, "Final Fantasy" will be seen as groundbreaking like "Akira" or quaint like "Tron". Either way, you have admire the gusto of the half-Japanese half-American crew that created the film, under the direction of Hironobu Sakaguchi and Motonori Sakakibara. Rather than create a film that plays like a video game - like, say, the "Mortal Kombat" series" or "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" - the filmmakers have attempted to make a work of art. At points in the film, the visual ones, they succeed admirably.