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Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

Starring: Ming-Na Wen, Alec Baldwin
Director: Hironobu Sakaguchi
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 101 Minutes
Release Date: July 2001
Genres: Action, Animation, Sci-Fi/Fantasy

*Also starring: Donald Sutherland, James Woods, Ving Rhames, Peri Gilpin, Steve Buscemi, David Michie, David Randolph, Steve Alterman

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
No Rating Supplied

The first image in "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" is a computer-animated close-up of a human eye. It's a beautiful piece of work, remarkably detailed and quite convincing. When the picture pulls back to reveal the owner of the eye, however, things change. The young woman has mesmerizing hair, although it hangs too artfully - even by movie standards - to be believed. The facial features are more detailed than any computer-animation seen to date, but the result is more reminiscent of a very well-crafted doll than anything human. She is pretty, but bland, and not nearly expressive enough to come off like a person.

All the characters in "Final Fantasy" are like that. Of the core group, the younger white men and women are all athletic, attractive and indistinct, like applicants for a TV reality show. The black man is taller and burlier, and the aging scholar is bald, with wrinkles and a beard. None of them appear to be based on individuals; they all look like the products of general descriptions given a police sketch artist.

It gets worse when they talk and move. Why is the sarcastic voice of Steve Buscemi, he of the great twisted face and snaggleteeth, coming out of the mouth of some dreary Ken doll? Why, for every fluid physical gesture, do we also see herky-jerky puppet-style motions? More to the point, who decided a full-length computer animated movie featuring "hyperReal" (their term, not mine) humanoids was a good idea?

"Final Fantasy" is based on a phenomenally popular video game I've never played, with a story straight out of Japanese anime, which more often than not leaves me bored and depressed. If you're a fan of either, please spare me your letters, as I will focus solely on the finished film and not its source materials. With an expression-challenged cast, "Final Fantasy" mixes turgid action scenes with heaps of mystical shit. The result is ugly, confusing and boring.

Note: The following reveals the basic plot. If you want to have a fighting chance of making any sense of the movie, I suggest you read it.

Earth is at war with aliens that appear to feed on human souls. Most of our planet is devastated, with humans living in a few protected cities. While the bulk of the survivors focus on military strategies, Aki Ross (voiced by Ming-Na) and her mentor, Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland), believe in a more organic approach. They operate on the notion (quoting straight from the press kit) "that all life forms have signature spirit waves that can be identified and contained. Aki and Dr. Sid collect a series of organic specimens whose spirit signatures combined will form a wave of equal and opposite intensity to the spirit wave of the alien force. The waves will, in effect, cancel each other out and disarm the foreign contagion. They have collected six of the eight key spirits needed to complete their wave. They are on a desperate hunt to find the remaining two spirits before their time runs out."

Are you still with me? There's only a little more.

Aki is infected with the alien force. Dr. Sid has developed a method of confining the contagion and keeping it from killing her, but the defense wall won't hold much longer. Already, the alien is communicating with Aki through her dreams. Aiding Aki and Dr. Sid are the Deep Eyes, a group of hard-as-nails types that would have felt at home with the troops in "Aliens." Capt. Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin) heads the task force that consists of a wise guy (Buscemi), a tough woman (Peri Gilpin) and a gentle giant (Ving Rhames). Throwing a monkey wrench into the plans is the requisite dumb ass: in this case General Hein (James Woods), who wants to use the Zeus Cannon to bomb the aliens back to the Stone Age, even if it destroys Earth as well.

So there you have it. Like most of the anime I've seen, the plot combines apocalyptic settings, lots of shooting and fuzzy spirituality, all wrapped up in a save-the-earth bow. But I'm bored with apocalyptic settings. I understand why so many live-action films employ them - they're cheap - but animated films can show anything, so why wallow in an industrial trash heap?

The action scenes and shoot-em-ups don't satisfy either. The humans move oddly and their facial features are so muted that the talented voice cast can't bring them to life (in fact, their efforts merely emphasize what we're missing). Aki is especially disappointing; with her lack of expression and flat delivery, she looks and sound like a brunet version of Weena, the Eloi girl from 1960's "The Time Machine." Drab color choices and aliens that appear to have been created in Jell-O molds sap the pizzazz from the big set pieces.

Students of computer animation may be fascinated with the technology behind "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within," but I found it sub-par across the board. "Futurama" does more effective battle visuals, the kids in "South Park" are far more expressive than these mannequins and any old episode of the contemporary version of "The Outer Limits" does better doom and gloom sci-fi. So who needs this? Not me.

Copyright 2001 Edward Johnson-Ott

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