Flesh for Fantasy
Thirty minutes into Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, I realized I had no idea what was going on...and could not have cared less. The New Age-tinged tale set 60 years in the future--about an alien infestation and the dueling schemes to eradicate it from the planet, one of which could completely annihilate earth--is secondary, too inexplicable to care about. Indeed, not even screenwriters Al Reinert (Apollo 13) and Jeff Vintar seem too interested in their story: Too many times, one character will ask another what's going on, how did this happen, where are we, and too many times, the response is a slight variation on, "I have no idea." Such narrative shorthand is to be expected, though, when a film is made from a video game and is, in fact, nothing more than a demo reel for the future--a movie that promises what's to come by reveling in its advancements while still tripping over its limitations. Final Fantasy is the work of visionaries, not filmmakers.
The story is but a fragile frame upon which director Hironobu Sakaguchi (who also created the internationally adored role-playing video game), producer Chris Lee and their hordes of computer programmers-cum-animators can drape their impressive canvas, featuring "lifelike" but wholly animated actors made of nothing more than ones and zeroes. Sakaguchi likes to call his creations "hyperReal characters," but there's nothing at all real about them, which is what makes the movie at once so hypnotizing and off-putting. It's not animation, but replication, right down to the freckles and single strands of hair. You're captivated by the technology, but rarely does the film allow you inside its code. Sakaguchi might as well be sitting next to you, whispering in your ear every five minutes, "Now, how cool does that look?!"
If nothing else, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within will have them talking at sci-fi and gaming conventions for years: Is it a turning point, they will wonder, or merely a dead end? For the first time, we're confronted with a movie screen filled with people who look real, more or less, if you've never actually met a human. They're voiced by movie stars and familiar faces, but we never see them: Alec Baldwin (as Captain Grey Edwards, a soldier in the fight against the invasion), Ming-Na (as Aki Ross, an infected scientist in contact, through her dreams, with the aliens), Donald Sutherland (as Dr. Sid, a researcher gathering spirits, or life forms, in his quest to end the invasion peacefully), James Woods (as General Hein, a leather-clad military man hell-bent on mass destruction) and Steve Buscemi (finally, a way to make him leading-man handsome). When one character removes his battle helmet, we're nearly shocked to discover his face doesn't belong to the man voicing him, Ving Rhames. Perhaps it would have been better to have used unknown actors, if only to remove some of the distance between us and the screen.
For a film about the planet's life force--its Gaia, as we're often reminded by Aki and Dr. Sid, who sound at times like peddlers of crystals and Enya CDs--the characters that populate Final Fantasy never really seem too alive. They don't quite move or speak or cry or breathe or emote like real people; they are, in fact, somewhere between cartoon characters and puppets, moving awkwardly inside a three-dimensional world no more bona fide than the ones found in Blade Runner or Japanime touchstone Akira.
Chris Lee, in a recent phone interview, insists this technology, which took five years to perfect in a Hawaiian compound, will be best served in action movies; it's not meant, he explained, for intimate dramas or comedies. But Final Fantasy is, at its core, a love story between Grey and Aki: They touch, kiss, caress in zero gravity, but the physical acts never become emotional ones. It's like watching mannequins make out. Aki sniffs but never actually tears up, perhaps because hers are cold, blank eyes; we see only our reflections in them--those of the audience, staring back in disbelief. And you will never get past the fact that Grey looks just like Ben Affleck but sounds just like Alec Baldwin as James Doolittle in Pearl Harbor.
The movie works best when we're looking at robots that gallop and wreak havoc in the wasteland and spaceships that silently soar through the stars--machines, in other words, things meant to be cold to the touch. And the aliens are overwhelming, at times, psychedelic swirls that appear more alive than the humans whose souls they literally steal and devour--ironic, considering they're really the ghosts of a deceased planet.
The technology, when improved upon further, does offer a multitude of possibilities: Stories too impossible, expensive or even dangerous to tell can be made without risk of financial or physical ruin; and old actors put out to pasture will again be hired for young parts. Jean Simmons, known for Guys and Dolls and Spartacus, is reborn in Final Fantasy as a woman far younger than her 72 years. But in the end, Final Fantasy is nothing more than an extravagant video game in which characters fix things, fly things, gather things and shoot things. It makes Shrek look outdated, Titan A.E. antiquated, but after a while, you want to play it, not just watch it. Too bad, then, it just plays you.
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