FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN
Director: Hironobu Sakaguchi
Cast: The voices of Ming-Na, Alec Baldwin, Ving Rhames, Steve Buscmei, Peri Gilpin, Donald Sutherland, James Woods
MPAA Rating: (for sci-fi action violence)
Running Time: 1:45
Release Date: 7/11/01
Review by Mark Dujsik
Ever since that cowboy doll sat up and started talking in Toy Story, computer animation has opened up the minds, hearts, and imaginations of movie-goers ready for that next step technology has to offer. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is that next step in the format’s evolution and may turn out to be a milestone in film history. For the first time, computer animated human characters occupy the screen for the entire film’s length. There are no talking dolls, no talking bugs, no talking donkeys. Here is a computer animated film whose roots obviously stem from Japanese anime. It is a film made by intelligent people for intelligent people.
The first image is of a barren landscape, which is followed by a picture of the eye of Dr. Aki Ross (voice of Ming-Na). The detail presented in the few seconds the image appears on screen is extraordinary. The skin wrinkles as she blinks; her face has freckles; the eyes are distinctly intent. The image catches you off-guard. Then as the sequence continues, we are presented with more of this landscape. The world becomes as important as the character, and the two images perfectly mesh. This mixture is something that a combination of live action and special effects could never create. Soon, Aki is standing on water, and we look up at her from underneath it. The water ripples beneath her feet, and the camera pulls up towards her. As a rumbling sounds over the horizon, Aki wakes up.
This sequence captures the entire sensation of watching Final Fantasy. Each second of the film is breathtaking in some way or another. Not content with simply presenting a barren world, the filmmakers soon take us to Old New York City of 2065 which is also barren but with remnants of life. Aki lands her ship and begins walking through the city, each shot establishing an atmosphere and mounting tension. We’re not exactly sure what has happened, but something is obviously wrong. Soon, Aki stumbles across some creatures known as Phantoms. Following the appearance, a group of military personnel arrives and begin blasting at the creatures. They eventually escape, but not without first taking a plant with a strange blue glow around it.
The story from here on establishes the overrunning of Earth by the Phantoms. There are two thoughts on how to eliminate them. The first is the Zeus Cannon which will fire directly into their nest and is backed by the military, especially General Hein (voice of James Woods). The second is the creation of a wavelength in opposition to the creatures’ own and is backed by the scientific community, especially Dr. Sid (voice of Donald Sutherland). To create the wavelength, they must find the eight spirits which are scattered across the planet. This, to Dr. Sid, seems the most safe and effective way, because the Zeus Cannon may damage or destroy Gaia, the spirit of Earth, itself.
This may seem like generic sci-fi talk and in a lesser film, it would be. But in Final Fantasy there is a philosophical system established by this debate which the film actually follows through on, and this really the gives the film its uniqueness. While the visual elements of the film always blend perfectly, there are times that an apparent Eastern and Western thinking clash. There are times that Final Fantasy becomes a typical sci-fi action/adventure film. The scenes are always visually exciting, but on a story level, they are ordinary. The military team (composed of the voices of Alec Baldwin, Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, and Peri Gilpin) is your standard caricature squad. Their characters never really emerge, because they are there simply to provide action sequences. The dialogue in these scenes are typical too, and at times the actors aren’t completely convincing in their delivery. Much of the dialogue editing is too quick, and some lines come right after another where, perhaps, a thoughtful pause should have been placed.
On the other hand, Dr. Sid and Gen. Hein, the two characters who provide the philosophical argument, actually show (as much as they can) personality and character. I have a feeling this is because their voices are provided by Sutherland and Woods, two actors who always give their roles personality and character. There are times you can sense a mind at work behind these characters. These moments are startling. There are more moments like these also. There are times that the other characters give a hint of thought. In a morbid example, it shows especially when certain characters realize they are going to die. There is this sense of revelation, both for the viewer and the character. These subtle displays are impressive for the simple fact that these characters do not exist, but for one brief moment, you want to believe that they do.
I have said before that computer animation gives animators as much, if not more, style freedom as traditional animation. Final Fantasy could have been a completely different movie had the characters looked photo-realistic, but there is a clear choice to keep these characters slightly less-than-real. In this way, the characters stay true to world the filmmakers have created. And what a world it is. The devastated Old New York, the dream-world, the Barrier City, the wasteland, the Phantom crater. These are all marvelous creations, and watching characters who almost appear real interacting with them is always a wonder to behold.
The story itself begins to grow as the film progresses. As the stakes grow inconceivably higher, the philosophical aspects of the film become more important, and the story actually inspires some deeper thinking. For a film full of such marvels, this may be the most impressive of all.
Copyright © 2001 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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