Fifty percent groundbreaking, breathtaking computer-generated visuals, 30 percent New Age spiritual hokum, 15 percent generic post-apocalyptic science fiction and five percent lame action flick clichés, "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" is such a eccentric amalgam of methods and moods that it's unlikely to leave anyone terribly impressed in the end. But absolutely everyone will be agog at the first 10 minutes.
Far and away the most mind-blowingly photo-realistic computer-animated movie to date, "Final Fantasy" wastes no time showing off what its huge staff of renderers can do, opening the picture with a fantastical dream sequence that includes a truly transporting alien landscape unequaled in the history of sci-fi cinema.
Its billowy red sky, gigantic looming moon, crystalline rock formations and sweeping vistas feel as real as another world could on screen. This was most definitely not shot through fancy filters in a quarry somewhere.
This dream sequence gives way to something even more amazing: a lingering close-up of the beautiful (both aesthetically and technologically), Dr. Aki Ross (voiced by Ming-Na), the soft-spoken scientist heroine of this off-shoot of the "Final Fantasy" PlayStation games.
Her skin is warm and even has pores, every single strand of her hair moves with conditioner-commercial naturalness, her eyes are intelligent and comely. Only the thickness of her individual eyelashes betrays her computer-animated origins.Director Hironobu Sakaguchi -- a developer and vice president at the software company that makes the "Final Fantasy" games -- uses these opening minutes to show off the best of his CGI crew's mind-blowing imagery. This way, he hopes, the viewer will be sufficiently impressed to forgive the slightly mechanical imperfections to follow, like the animatronic way that supporting characters blink so mechanically and their lips don't quite sync up with their voices.
He also sets up the plot in these opening minutes. It's a post-apocalyptic fable set in 2065 A.D., and what's left of humanity is battling a menagerie of mostly invisible but glowingly gelatinous aliens animals that have overrun our world, wiping out humanity by literally sucking out the lifeforce of every living thing on the planet. More cool effects illustrate this liquidation by the stripping of ghostly blue forms from human bodies, which then slump to the floor.
But with all the effort put into making "Final Fantasy" look like 100 million bucks, you'd think the filmmakers would have tried a little harder to exercise the same originality in the execution of the story.
Heavy on the anime-inspired metaphysical mysticism, the plot revolves around Dr. Ross and her mentor Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) trying to save life as we know it by gathering the eight spirits of the Earth as an antidote to the lifeforce of the alien phantoms.
What are these spirits? Why are there eight of them? How does Dr. Ross know when she's found one? How does she know where to look? No such answers are forthcoming here. Either you buy into the movie's mythos -- based in part on the recently repopularized ancient Greek belief in an Earth-mother spirit named Gaea -- or you don't. And this is a big chunk of the movie, so if you're going into "Final Fantasy" for the action implied in the high-energy trailers and TV ads, you're going to be disappointed.
In fact, the action element is where the movie is the weakest. James Woods lends his nefarious voice to the movie's most blatantly unoriginal plot devise. He plays General Hein, a power-mad military villain from central casting who stomps around in a tailored leather duster demanding a blow-stuff-up solution to defeating the aliens -- something Dr. Ross is afraid will "injure the Spirit of the Earth."
There's a serious snicker factor here, especially with the subplot of a rekindled old romance between Dr. Ross and Captain Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin), the soldier whose unit has been assigned to both protect and spy on the scientists. It isn't long before the dialogue starts dripping with clichés, and the more Sakaguchi tries to appease the action flick target audience (which will be busy scratching its collective head at the movie's underlying spiritualism), the worse those clichés get.
Playing supporting heroes, character actor Steve Buscemi gets all the lame wisecracks ("Doc, you got a talent for understatement.") and Ving Rhames gets to trumpet the call of the expendable honor-bound and mortally wounded soldier. "Just gimme a gun!" he insists before firing away at an onslaught of aliens. "Now get outta here!" Pow! Pow! Pow!
There's absolutely no denying the leap forward in computer animation demonstrated in "Final Fantasy." Ninety percent of the time these pixilated characters look so much like real humans that the artistry of it all distracts one from the movie's narrative shortcomings. And the medium frees the filmmakers to create a world that includes technological advancements like holographic computer interfaces that could never even be attempted in a live-action movie.
But it's more than a little frustrating to be so stimulated visually while being spoon-fed incongruous spiritual mumbo jumbo and force-fed incompatible summer action conventions in a movie that is, after all, only based on a video game.