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Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within   C

Columbia Pictures

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Hironobu Sakaguchi
Writers: Hironobu Sakaguchi, Al Reinert, Jeff Vintar
Cast: Ming-Na, Alec Baldwin, James Woods, Donald Sutherland, Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi, Peri Gilpin, Dwight Schultz.

Review by Rob Vaux

Judging by the prerelease hype, Final Fantasy represents an earth-shattering moment in the history of film. The sci-fi epic -- based on a popular line of video games -- uses computer-generated images to approximate photographic reality. Much has been made of the efforts involved in bringing it to the screen: the years of work, the attention to detail, the programming required to make the heroine's hair flow just right. The end result, however, is a resounding "blah." Besides using such technology to tell a depressingly by-the-numbers story, its bold experiment causes more frustration than wonder. The filmmakers have labored to beget a mouse.

To its credit Final Fantasy has fairly big card in its hand. The technically brilliant animation renders the entire story -- settings, props and characters -- in near-photorealistic terms, and the results are impressive to be sure. Few animated films have come so close to "reality," and Final Fantasy certainly represents a landmark in computer-generated imagery. Unfortunately, such photorealism contains a host of problems that its older counterparts never had to worry about.

Animation often means distortion. Figures like Bug Bunny (and more recent CGI creations like Shrek and Buzz Lightyear) rely on exaggeration to convey human emotions. The wider their smile the more easily we can identify with their glee and so on. In striving for photorealism, however, Final Fantasy has removed that exaggerated quality, a costly mistake. Its characters are muted, stilted, and strangely expressionless. Their visual complexity denies the ability to easily convey their feelings the way Shrek or Bugs could.

Yet at the same time, they still don't match the vital human spark of flesh and blood actors. As thinly developed as she was, Angelina Jolie's Lara Croft still has more spark and life than any of the characters here. The animation simply can't convey the countless tiny facial movements that human actors perform without thinking. The final effect is like watching an entire cast perform in rubber masks. The voices (from the likes of Alec Baldwin and Ving Rhames) show plenty of emotion, but the CGI can't match their energy. Rarely has the dissonance between animated characters and their voices been more pronounced. (When you find yourself longing to look at Steve Buscemi's real face, there's something deeply wrong.) It prevents Final Fantasy from truly engaging us, or from seeing its protagonists as anything more than pixilated toys. Buzz and Woody had 10 times the humanity as any of the figures here.

The film fares better in more traditional science fiction terms. It presents a beautifully realized world -- war-ravaged Earth of 2065 -- as well as a host of impressive alien invaders and the high-tech equipment humanity uses to battle them. Here, the CGI really shines, and Final Fantasy is at its strongest simply indulging in the majesty of its creation. A pity that neither its plot nor its characters can keep up.

When divorced from the visual achievements, the film is a routine space opera, borrowing liberally from earlier landmarks like Aliens and Akira. Its protagonist, Dr. Aki Ross (Ming-Na) seeks to free the Earth from invading aliens called phantoms. Humanity lives huddled in bubble cities, while the phantoms roam unchecked across the blasted landscape outside. Some, like the evil General Hein (James Woods), want to use new weapons to blast the aliens into oblivion, but others like Aki and her mentor Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland), believe that different means can be used to reclaim the planet. Their plan involves finding eight "spirits" who can reawaken the soul of Mother Earth, and thereby banish the phantoms.

At least I think so. The specifics are annoyingly vague, and the pseudo-spiritual plotline never truly meshes with the shoot-em-up action pieces that punctuate the film. To its credit, Final Fantasy manages to transcend its video game roots (the plot feels natural enough to pass inspection and certainly contains more depth than, say, Tomb Raider), but that doesn't make it as new or original as it pretends. Indeed, there's very little here that hasn't been seen in a thousand movies before it. Take away the CGI, and you've got a lot of forgettable clichés.

In the end, Final Fantasy simply can't live up to its previous billing. Without a more substantive story, its technical advancement means very little, and impressive visuals still can't replace a genuine human soul. The animators put in a lot of hard work here, and they should be very proud of themselves. But frankly, if Final Fantasy is the future of movies, I'm taking up macramé.

Review published 07.16.2001.

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