Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
review by Gregory Avery, 13 July 2001

About fifteen years ago, Omni magazine asked several Hollywood directors to describe a film they think they would make for moviegoers at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Several directors described pet projects that they had been wanting to make for years -- Richard Attenborough said he would make a film about Thomas Paine, Mel Brooks a film version of Oliver Goldsmith's eighteenth-century comedy She Stoops to Conquer. (Personally, I'd rather see the Brooks film.) Susan Seidelman, who had just made the hugely successful Desperately Seeking Susan, said that she would make a movie starring Marilyn Monroe and Robert De Niro: technology will have advanced at that time to where an electronically-recreated Monroe could seamlessly and easily play scenes opposite the real De Niro.

I recalled Seidelman's remarks both before, during, and after seeing Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, the first film in which the entire cast of characters has been created using computer technology. (This is also the second film to appear this summer based on a video game. The film's director, Hironobu Sakaguchi, also developed the Final Fantasy video game.) The characters have been rendered in minute detail, right down to the shine in their eye and the strands of their hair, but, in focusing so much attention on creating simulations that can be mistaken for "real" people, the filmmakers have forgotten (or ignored) what film actors and directors have been saying for years: that film is a medium capable of recording the process of thought. Even though there are fleeting instances where your eye is fooled into thinking it's seeing something that's "real", the characters in Final Fantasy never come off as anything more than computer imagery, and they never take on a life of their own. The film turns into a procession of walking, immaculate mannequins, and after a while you not only stop caring about what's happening on the screen, you don't even care about looking at the screen: when you do, you feel like you're staring at Tupperware. By comparison, even the simple hand-drawn characters in Jules Feiffer's Munro or the old Crusader Rabbit T.V. cartoons seem infinitely more cognizant.

At the same time, there is a gesture towards narrative in the film, involving story elements, all squished-together like Play-Doh, about "phantoms" that have arrived on Earth during the second half of the twenty-first century (and which look, for the most part, like angry halitosis bacteria), worrisome distinctions between the physical and spiritual properties of things, a metaphysical philosophy involving "Gaia" (which, for some reason, I kept confusing in my mind with the artist Salvador Dalí's demon wife, Gala), an attempt by scientists to collect seven "spirits" which together are supposed to stop the marauding alien "phantoms" while, at the same time, renewing the ravaged planet,, and a U.S. military ruler who just wants to get rid of the pesky visitors by means of one big blast from a huge space gun (reflecting the eternal conflict between Reason and Brute Force). Absolutely none of this makes any sense at all, the dialogue isn't of much help, either ("We can get through this! I still have the wave!"), we're never clearly told what the seven "spirits" are or how they are found or what kind of power they're supposed to have, and characters throw themselves in and out of one situation after another without seeming to think. Then it turns out that the "phantoms" are, in fact, not invaders at all, but the remnants of life from a planet that has exploded. They're refugees! All of a sudden, the idea of blasting them to a ka-zillion pieces seems about as appealing as massacring people in lifeboats from the Titanic. Why not negotiate a detente with the "phantoms"? It would save on a lot of firepower, and manpower.

But this would be at cross-purposes with what the filmmakers want to do. Even though an impressive array of talent has been obtained to put voices to the animated faces (Donald Sutherland and Jean Simmons provide the most expressive elocutions, while Steve Buscemi must've been tickled to do the voice for a paramilitary character who looks just like Edward Norton), the story has been stripped of logic, explanation, method -- most of the things which engage or make us want to identify with a story -- so that it's focused entirely on escapes, pursuits, battles, and explosions. In other words, the people who made this film are still making video games.

It's not as if the technology itself is creating an impediment. It could be wonderfully used towards bringing something like Harlan Ellison's screen adaptation of Issac Asimov's I, Robot to the screen. (Ellison's screenplay has been languishing for over twenty years, waiting to be made into a film.) But instead of bringing us stories that would amaze and inspire us, what we're getting is clods blowing things up. What the film most brings to mind is the Japanese fad of otaku: small, artificial dolls that are nonetheless perfectly rendered down to the last detail. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within may be the most expensive otaku ever made.

Directed by:
Hironobu Sakaguchi

Starring the
voices of:

Alec Baldwin
Ving Rhames
Peri Gilpin
Steve Buscemi
James Woods
Jean Simmons
Donald Sutherland

Written by:
Al Reinert 
Jeff Vintar

PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautions
Some material may not be suitable for children




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