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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 Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

"Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" was put together over a four-year period by a team that was half-Japanese and half- American, directed by Hironobu Sakaguchi--from a country that has helped to popularize tofu (bean curd) in the United States. Why mention this? There's an analogy to be found. When tofu is not used in its most basic form, a white, nutritious cake which takes on the flavor of whatever surrounds it, this miracle food is in manufactured construct takes on the look and to some extent the flavor of another edible that it's imitating. Look on supermarket shelves and you may find tofu milk, tofu burgers, tofu hot dogs, tofu ice cream and several other varieties of ersatz nourishment. Can the tofu fool anyone into thinking that it's really a burger or a hot dog? No way. After all the money that has gone into research, there's a significant distinction between the curd and the meat or dairy product it's designed to emulate. What does this mean? It means that the cruel slaughterhouses of agribusiness will continue to churn out billions of deaths each year to feed the American palate. Will tofu ever replace pigs, cows, lambs and chicken thereby eliminating the entire heartless industry? Maybe...let's hope so. There's been quite an improvement in the bean curd industry from its infancy when it produced nothing short of offensive milk that you wouldn't feed to your kitten.

Same goes for "Final Fantasy." The movie represents the first time a real bid has been made to replicate human actors, a potential union-busting technology which--even if it eventually replaces Julia Roberts with her standard 20 million per picture paycheck--still costs the producers a cool 140 million. Is "Final Fantasy" worth the price? That depends on what you seek when you pays your money and takes your choice. If you're looking for a cool story, you'll get nothing new. The only thing that can be said about this sci-fi narrative is that it is far superior to the horrendous tale told in IMAX 3-D's "The Haunted Castle." But you don't go to IMAX films for the yarn: you go for the technology. Ditto "Final Fantasy." That's why you'd be well advised not to pass up Mr. Sakaguchi's visionary work, a genuine breakthrough which may not be the equivalent of the introduction of sound or 3-D or even Cinemascope but which could point the way to near-perfect, non-actor-performed pictures in the future.

Not that "Final Fantasy" dispenses with highly paid performers. The story, scripted by the director together with Al Reinert and Jeff Vintar, employs the voices of Ming-Na, Alec Baldwin, Steve Buscemi, Donald Sutherland, James woods, Ving Rhames and others--most effectively coordinated with the movements of the computer generated lips of the cyberactors on the screen, but we're not fooled. There's something otherworldly about the synthetic men and women on the screen who battle aliens, although Dr. Sid, a humanistic scientist, looks most frighteningly like the genuine article.

"Final Fantasy," loosely based on a series of highly successful video games, pits a group of scientists and military people against an alien force that had been released when a falling body crashed into the earth, killing human beings by sucking their essence right out of them. We actually witness the demise of the people, who appear to be engaging in out-of-body experiences. Although the humanistic Dr. Aki Ross (Ming-Na) believes that these aliens are not our enemies--they are simply confused and searching for their roots--they certainly have us in the audience fooled. Politically, the non-alien characters are divided into rightists and leftists. The leftists, who include Aki and a guy she's attracted to, Captain Gray (Alec Baldwin) as well as a scientist called Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland), consider that the way to send the aliens on the merry way is to channel the Earth soul, or Gaia, an environmentally sound technique. The right- wingers, represented by General Hein (James Woods), want to blast them all. The trouble with the latter approach is that human beings will be killed as well as the spooky looking green dragons and some unexplained creatures that spend their time running some sort of marathon for reasons that only they may know.

I'm not privy to any interviews of director Hironobu Sakaguchi but I'd guess he'd say to critics and a general audience alike, "Hey, guys, don't judge me by the story. Appraise me strictly by visuals." Well, now, he's got a point. While Dr. Aki Ross's hair doesn't quite blow in the wind as much as does the hair of models in a Clairol commercial, her eyes sure look real and she's a most attractive fake. The explosions, the look of the oxymoronic Old New York which could have come from "Dark City," the all-around futuristic structures that abound throughout every scene in this ocular-arresting film make it a picture that no movie buff will want to miss.

When sound came around in 1929, there were skeptics who said that it would never replace the silents. However, when 3-D was first introduced to the movies during the 1950's and then improved on greatly during the IMAX era, people were tempted to say that all movies would shortly be in three dimensions. This did not come to pass and will not. Even if the heavy glasses can be dispensed with, there's something paradoxically artificial- looking about the natural imagery of IMAX 3-D. Will "Final Fantasy" be a harbinger of things to come or will its technology remain simply an alternate way of seeing films when you're in the mood for novelty? Hard to say, but I'd guess the latter. Then again I'm not from the generation that eschewed punch ball and stick ball in the street in favor of staying home with video games like The Sims, Final Fantasy and Tomb Raider.

Copyright 2001 Harvey Karten

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