Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

FinalFantasy-TheSpiritsWithinThe first full length feature film with photo-realistic computer animated human characters and environments didn’t make much of an impact at the box office partly because of weaknesses in the film’s story and partly because people aren’t ready to jump on this technology bandwagon just yet.

Based on the video game series of the same name, Final Fantasy begins in the year 2065 where Earth addresses a problem that appeared 34 years ago continues to plague the planet.

The movie’s director Hironobu Sakaguchi (original creator of the video game series) takes advantage of the limitless ways he can create environments and place the camera practically anywhere, which produces some outstanding “eye candy” for the audience. Motonori Sakaguchi is credited as co-director.

Sakaguchi also gets story credit as writers Jeff Vintar and Al Reinhert (Apollo 13) help him construct an original story based on the game’s concept.  The story, not based on any particular storyline from the video game series, has many elements, most notably some spiritual elements (i.e. Gaya) that are interesting, but don’t really develop as a filmatic theme.  The only noticeable aspect taken from the video game series is the character name of Doctor Sid – all of the video game series had an older, wiser character named Cid.

Ming Na (Joy Luck Club, TV’s ER) provides the voice for the main character, Dr. Aki Ross, an intelligent researcher/scientist who travels the Earth searching for specific entities for important research.  Her character gets the best development because her actions have important impacts for everyone and herself.

Aki looks great in her buttsuit…I mean bodysuit – part of a marketing ploy to get the male audience to ogle at her onscreen.  This unfortunate plan of action, which includes a bikini clad Aki in Maxim magazine, doesn’t really fit her screen persona and offends this reviewer.  This issue of Aki’s sex appeal adds another confusing element to the entire concept of computer generated humans in film.  Mainstream audiences might feel embarrassed that they think Aki is attractive or maybe they’re just confused by the whole concept.  In any case, CGIs in the medium of film provide more technological solutions than emotional and intellectual impact…so far.

Alec Baldwin voices Dr. Ross’s field colleague/love interest, Captain Gray Edwards who finds himself in the midst of Aki’s special research assisted by Dr. Sid, voiced by Donald Sutherland.  Gray’s military command group, the Deep Eyes Squad, includes the wily Neil, voiced by Steve Buscemi (Armageddon, 28 Days), who provides some help, but mainly functions as the low level comic relief, the heroic Ryan, the voice of Ving Rhames (Mission Impossible, Entrapment), the no-nonsense Jane, voiced by Peri Gilpin (TV’s Frasier).

James Woods provides the voice for General Hein, a curt and vengeful man who makes more problems for everyone on Earth instead of solving them.  How could an ill-tempered leader in such a high position have such a wide access to vital resources and strongholds?  Though one scene explains some heart felt reasoning behind his attitude, his shady actions speak for themselves as he establishes himself as the human antagonist in the story.  Keith David (Pitch Black) and Jean Simmons (North & South/Thornbirds TV mini series) also provide the voices of Earth’s leading council members while Matt McKenzie (Spawn TV series) voices Major Elliot.

The greatest potential this movie has is the ability to do anything in a realistic environment without risk to any human life.   This level of entertainment increases when the story puts the audience right into the middle of the action as an active participant who understands without a lot of explanation.  Past animated movies have achieved this level of entertainment with first person roller coaster like spaceship journeys and fast moving camera pans. Stuntmen, camera grips, and stand-ins can breath easy because the completely virtual world doesn’t require their presence.

The technological advance of more realistic characters and environment gives Final Fantasy the edge and the opportunity to boldly go where no animated visual work has gone before, but the story hinders this attempt.  Instances where characters have to explain detailed information to the audience, especially in an interior scene with a group of six, hurts the chances for an experience that’s well executed in all areas.  Movie makers fail to initialize most elements in an impactful way that would allow the audience to react better to the information instead of just listening to it through a third person point of view.  Aki’s ship and a surviving bird are a few instances where good use of presented elements is fully realized.

In one scene where a character is injured, the other characters give heartfelt assurances that they’ll be back to help him and treat his serious injuries, then they just calmly walk away.  It’s good to go into your next situation with caution and methodical tact, but does anyone notice that your comrade is hurting badly?  Pick up the pace a bit!  If the information and story elements were presented better, then the audience would be able to react to them better.

The characters have better success against the antagonistic entities when they analyze some facts and assumptions that have been made.  Story drama increases near the end as parallel storylines produce a “race against time” motive that builds to a satisfying ending in the Caspian mountains.

Composer Elliot Goldenthal (Heat, Terminator 2) puts together a driving musical score that matches the visuals well, but it takes a back seat to the sound and visuals. The sound department plays an extremely important role as their workload multiplies in a virtual environment.  The visual department definitely achieves the goal of filling the screen with the most realistic computer made environments to date, it’s the execution of the actions that needs improvement.

The people used in the motion capture filming for the characters’ movements – similar techniques used in video games – should receive a lot of credit for the movie’s technological success.

New technology in the film industry usually get equal representation in their initial visual work (T2 is a notable success), but Final Fantasy doesn’t quite live up to its advances.  The film’s visuals provide a strong interest, but the simple, weaker storyline may leave you thinking, “I wish I could believe there was a better place.”  Audiences unfamiliar/uninterested with this technology may feel unintentionally excluded, but the inventive, original ending and a prominent, and admirable female lead character, Aki, provide some good reasons to see this movie.  Filmed in Honolulu, Hawaii and Yokohama, Japan, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within comes recommended with reservations (** out of four stars).  Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence.

Copyright © Michael Siebenaler

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