Combustible Celluloid
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With: (voices) Ming-Na, Alec Baldwin, Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi, Peri Gilpin, Donald Sutherland, James Woods
Written by: Al Reinert and Jeff Vintar, based on a story by Hironobu Sakaguchi
Directed by: Hironobu Sakaguchi
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sci-fi action violence
Running Time: 106
Date: 07/02/2001

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Harsh Reality

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Director Josef von Sternberg (1894-1969) once said that the perfect movie would be entirely artificial, though I'm not sure Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is quite what he had in mind. More likely, what Alfred Hitchcock supposedly said of Ingrid Bergman, "so beautiful... so stupid," is more on the money.

Final Fantasy is based on a popular video game and directed by the game's creator, Hironobu Sakaguchi. Going farther than anyone before him -- even the makers of Shrek -- Sakaguchi attempted to render ultra-realistic human characters using computer animation. And, more often than not, he succeeds.

The first ten minutes of the film hits dead center. Dr. Aki Ross (voiced by Ming-Na) lands in the ruins of New York City, apparently looking for something. Before long, translucent creatures (complete with tentacles and tails and such) begin rising from the earth. Then more solid, hooded creatures land from the sky and begin attacking the first creatures. Dr. Ross seems confused. The hooded creatures begin speaking to her -- she shouldn't be here. But she's suddenly found what she's looking for, a small half-dead plant.

Sakaguchi and his scriptwriters Al Reinert and Jeff Vintar knew enough to keep us slightly in the dark plotwise here, while dropping our jaws with the beautiful, imaginative visuals. Then, sadly, the hooded creatures take off their hoods and begin speaking. They're a military team straight out of James Cameron's Aliens, consisting of: Captain Gray Edwards (voiced by Alec Baldwin), Ryan (voiced by Ving Rhames), Neil (voiced by Steve Buscemi), and Jane (voiced by Peri Gilpin). A doddering old doctor (voiced by Donald Sutherland) straight out of Jules Verne comes along too. Their dialogue immediately becomes contrived and cliched, dragging out every old one-liner the screenwriting 101 handbook has to offer, and explaining the entire plot in great detail so that we can easily predict how everything turns out.

The idea is that the doctor and Aki need to find the last of eight spirits to counter the attacking aliens and restore peace on earth. Unfortunately for them, the evil General Hein (who needs only a mustache to twist and some puppies and kittens to stomp on), just wants to nuke everything, logic be damned.

While the story and dialogue grow more and more laughable, the visuals continue to astound. Sakaguchi creates pores and flaws in the characters' skin, and the body movements, though a little stiff, feel astonishingly real. The only trouble centers around the characters' mouths, which don't quite open wide enough to register the actors' line readings. At times, I thought of the old 1960s puppettoon movies like Thunderbirds Are Go. But Aki Ross herself was clearly Sakaguchi's passion. For a make-believe creature she's amazingly beautiful, especially her hair, which moves like poetry itself. (Good thing she was able to find a decent conditioner in post-apocalyptic New York.)

By the movie's end, I was too busy sniggering at the horrible lines, like, "Gray... be careful!" and "Wait! It's too dangerous!" and "Let's do this thing!" and "Let's get the hell out of here!" to enjoy the visuals. I kept wondering why quality actors like the ones assembled here would bother with such stuff. The filmmakers could have saved a lot of money by hiring amateurs from a local college and achieved the same effect.

I'll confess that I've never played, nor even seen, the Final Fantasy video game, but I don't think that matters much. Not even the game's fans will care much for this offshoot -- it plays more like a tame kiddie movie than a "cool" video game. What it all comes down to, ultimately, is that the makers of Final Fantasy easily spent more time on Aki's hair than they did on the script.

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