With a team of 200 graphic artists and animators working on this first film production from game developer Squaresoft's Square Pictures, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, inspired by the top-selling game franchise, is visually awe-inspiring and groundbreaking. No doubt, you have never seen anything like this film, and the hyperbolic fanfare surrounding its release is absolutely deserved. But why does such a tremendous feat of eye candy have to be weighted down with a problematic story, wooden dialogue and generally uncharismatic voice acting?
Obviously, the primary goal of the film is to stun and amaze audiences with extremely sophisticated CGI. Everything you see in the film is rendered in great detail: individual threads in the fabric, strands of hair swaying, wrinkles and pimples on skin, incredible water effects. Overall, the expressions and lip movements fairly accurately match the emotions and dialogue; and the times when they don't sync perfectly really stand out, since the animation is usually so dazzling. But you won't spend much time dwelling on those gaffes -- as soon as you catch one, the next stellar monster or effect will have you muttering, "Wow..."
Like the series of games, Final Fantasy's plot and characters have little to do with its predecessors, outside of being born from the same Japanese mastermind, Hironobu Sakaguchi. It's the year 2065, and humans are prisoners in caged cities of their own making that guard them from an outside world now overrun with deadly alien "phantoms." Whenever a human comes in contact with the ghostly visitors, the often-invisible beings pass through the body and wrench out its soul (for some unexplainable reason). While many humans agree with a plan by monomaniacal General Hein (James Woods) to blast the aliens with a "Zeus Cannon," Dr. Aki Ross (Ming-Na) and Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) plan to build a "wave" using eight collected "spirits" to counteract the phantoms and kill them off.
While the images serve the sci-fi aspect of the film well, the storytelling doesn't. It's unfortunate, because the plot seems so intricately thought out. Perhaps it was far too complex and enormous to be entirely incorporated into the script. Some could blame this weakness on the fact that it was a Japanese concept translated to English, except two Americans wrote the screenplay. Nevertheless, the end result is an elaborate story complicated by confusing holes. Why do these aliens feed on souls? If they can pass through bodies and ships, how can humans hurt them with guns? What is so special about the "spirits" that they would create a force strong enough to destroy the aliens?
Worse yet, the dialogue is scripted to be either like a science-heavy Star Trek episode, an installment of Die Hard, or a sappy love story, depending on who's doing the talking. For the most part, it's bearable considering the genre, but tedious speeches and cheesy lines don't do anything to help the actors and can get annoying in the longer scenes. The only exception is Steve Buscemi as pilot Neil Fleming, who always has great cracks during tense moments.
But, when the lights come up and the credits roll, you're more likely to be remarking on how fantastic the film looked. There's no question that the roughly 33 million people who have bought at least one Final Fantasy game will be eager to see this movie [Whoops. -Ed.], and so should anyone who enjoys being floored by the best CG animation ever put to film. You'd be living in a fantasy world of your own if you expected much more.
But if you are expecting more, look no further than the Final Fantasy DVD, a two-disc set which features multiple commentary tracks, making-of footage, videos, alternate sequences, and more. The "cut your own scene" feature is admittedly lame, but the most curious bonus item on the disc is the "proof of concept" footage created back in 1998 to prove that a fully computer-generated film could make it. Whether that proof is there is up to you.
The fantasy before the final one.