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Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
Reviewed by Jason Myers, ©

Format: Movie
By:   Hironobu Sakaguchi
Genre:   Animation / Science Fiction / Fantasy
Released:   July 11, 2001
Review Date:  
RevSF Rating:   8/10 (What Is This?)

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is not actually based on any of the Final Fantasy videogames (the only real nod to the videogames I could find was Dr. Sid, who is a reference to the various characters named Cid found throughout the series). But the plot to Final Fantasy is videogame ready. A ragtag group of scientists and soldiers try to collect the "eight spirits" necessary to create a spirit pattern that will neutralize the deadly phantoms who are overrunning the earth.

What's more notable, though, is Final Fantasy's similarities to anime movies. It's no surprise, given the background of Square, the company that created the videogames and the movie, but Final Fantasy, though eschewing some of anime's more "vulgar" properties (gore, sex, and sex and gore at the same time), is, top to bottom, Japanese animation. The strong central female character, the tentacled critters, the mentions of Gaia, the eco-message, and the post-apocalyptic setting, so very popular with a country that's actually experienced apocalypse first-hand.

As such, the release of Final Fantasy is a historic movie if for no other reason than that it marks the second time (after Princess Mononoke's brief appearance) that this type of movie has been available at your suburban cineplex. Ghost in the Shell, and others, have mostly been relegated to the art house circuit. Final Fantasy is the first wide-release anime in the U.S. Casual fans of animation and computer animation have no idea what they're in for. And this could bode badly for Final Fantasy's box office.

What could bode badly for Final Fantasy's critical success, however, are the elements that will be seen as more typical American Hollywood. The plot sometimes takes a back seat to the action, the characters are interesting but mostly not well-developed, there is a spattering of clichéd lines, and some over-used "enlightened scientists versus the corporate military machine" stuff. However, it should be pointed out that all these things are as often to be found in Asian films as in American ones. Not every Japanimation film is Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind. A lot of them are pure tripe.

Final Fantasy does, sadly, crib heavily from the Alien movies, among others. If you're going to steal, I guess you should steal from the best (as Event Horizon did), but the Colonial Marines feel of much of the movie is only one of several parallels.

I haven't yet said anything about the CG animation, which is far from perfect, but nonetheless stunning. The human characters sometimes look a bit like marionettes, and lip movements are off enough that I wondered if the dialogue was originally animated in Japanese. But these are minor complaints. Check out the skin detail, and the hair. Some of the inanimate objects (a soldier's knife, General Hein's leather coat) have flawless texture and substance.

Realism aside, the visuals are gorgeous. The advantage of animation over live-action is that the imagination is not limited by the constraints of what is feasible. With the exception of the Zeus Cannon, the bazillionth variation on the Death Star, the technology is highly original and vividly rendered. The properties of the translucent phantoms elevate them far above the standard Alien-clone baddies.

There are some limitations, of course. The phantoms come in three basic types, and the lack of variety is completely inconsistent with the explanation given for their existence, but entirely consistent with the fact that it's easier and cheaper to model and animate a limited number of creatures, and then duplicate them several times over. This also helps explain the small number and generic nature of any human characters beyond the core group. There's an occurrence of spectacular mass chaos that transpires entirely off-screen, probably due to the fact that showing the occurrence would require that dozens or hundreds of human "extras" be built and animated.
Less obvious than the visuals, but no less impressive, is the sound in Final Fantasy. The voice actors, with the exception of Alec Baldwin (also doing voice work in this summer's Cats & Dogs), are top-drawer: Ming-Na (Mulan, Street Fighter, The Joy Luck Club), Donald Sutherland (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Puppetmasters), Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction, Mission Impossible), Peri Gilpin (Frasier), and even Dwight Schultz (The A-Team, Star Trek: TNG). Steve Buscemi (Reservoir Dogs, Desperado, and a bunch of Cohen brother movies) was also in Final Fantasy. As much as I love Buscemi, I found his presence in this movie to be a bit distracting. His voice is almost too distinctive.

Voice-talent aside, the foley artists for Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within did a bang-up job. The sound effects really sold me on the environment of Final Fantasy. It's hard not to be awed by the clang of metal as hundreds of armored creatures straight out of Warhammer 40K barrel down on you. And at small moments, such as when General Hein flips over a picture, the line that your mind uses to differentiate virtual images from actual ones becomes razor thin.

THIS PARAGRAPH IS INFESTED WITH SPOILERS. There were definitely some things that annoyed me. The deaths of the three supporting characters in quick succession was without meaning, purpose, logic, or drama. It seemed like it was just time to get rid of them so they wouldn't complicate the final act of the movie. Also, the giant protoplasmic spirit resembled the monster in Akira, but was even more similar in form and function to the creature at the end of Princess Mononoke (which plagiarized Akira's monster a bit). The ending was also a very anime ending, which will probably bother a large portion of the American audience, but didn't bother me. What bothered me a bit was its similarity again to the ending of Princess Mononoke. Though the closing theme was about twelve notches above the incongruous dreck that got pasted over the end of Mononoke.

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is, alas, not the masterwork that some of us were hoping for. But it is an event that you probably shouldn't miss seeing on the big screen.

Jason Myers is Film/DVD Editor for RevolutionSF.

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