If the studios had needed a secret weapon during the recent contract negotiations with the Screen Actors Guild, they could have used “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.” The first major release to feature an entire cast of computer-generated human characters, this bigscreen adaptation of the long-popular interactive computer game is visually impressive if not dramatically cool, and is marked by “acting” that is no worse than that found in the majority of sci-fi films. Teens, especially game players and boys already turned on to the beautiful virtual heroine Dr. Aki Ross, will constitute a hefty opening-weekend audience for this sleek but distant entertainment, although how much repeat biz or curiosity among non-aficionados it will generate is questionable. But as computer game-derived features go, it sure beats “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.” Foreign future, especially in Asia, look big, as does home viewing revenue down the line.
The “Final Fantasy” game first appeared in 1987 and reached a crescendo of popularity with the release of the eighth and ninth installments over the past two years. Creator Hironobu Sakaguchi has controlled the game every step of the way and maintained a total grip on the film as well in his capacities as story writer, producer and director (co-director Motonori Sakakibara has worked with him as an animator and director since 1995). Al Reinert, who co-wrote the script with Jeff Vintar, was born in Japan and more than earned his space-travel stripes as producer-director of the docu “For All Mankind” and co-writer of “Apollo 13.”
Although it treads such familiar movie and sci-fi territory as a decimated planet Earth (New York City takes it on the chin again), aliens that can get up inside you and intense battles in which a few stalwart humans try to keep the savage hordes at bay, pic is marked by an Eastern, one-world spiritual and philosophical approach quite different from the gung-ho action mentality found in most Western futuristic epics. In tone and attitude, “Final Fantasy” is much closer to the modern Japanese animated classic “Princess Mononoke,” which dealt with disruptions in the overarching harmoniousness of the natural world order, than to the kick-butt mindset one normally expects in the computer game arena.
On the other hand, all the highfalutin talk about wave theory, spirit signatures, dream visions and energy forces — much of it from the mouth of a resident bald sage — will more readily remind many viewers of “Star Trek,” which is both a good and a bad thing. The phantoms — opaque, dragon-like creatures that appear, float about and vanish like ghosts — that represent the ostensible evil here aren’t particularly effective villains, so there is a fundamental lack of visceral engagement in the central conflict. Film boasts enough action and incident to hold the attention over the relatively brisk running time, but it’s a calm, polite sort of attention, one without compelling involvement or resonance.
Curiously, then, for a film that’s both animated and a sci-fier, most of the interest stems from the appeal of its principal character. A cool, composed, dark-haired beauty who resembles a blend of Jennifer Love Hewitt and Bridget Fonda, Dr. Aki Ross is introduced on an exploratory mission to Old New York City in 2065. In terms of narrative, which involves Aki and some friendly soldiers shooting at elusive light forms in the ruined streets of the city and later being scanned for contagion, initial action is fairly confusing. But this doesn’t matter much, since one is absorbed during the opening stretch simply beholding the physical look of this new artistic universe.
Style is dubbed “hyperRealism” by its makers, a term that seems as good as any, since it very narrowly walks the line between photographic realism and ultra-vivid painterly detail; backgrounds are close to the sort of lifelike representations of otherworldly settings that have graced the covers of sci-fi novels over the years. Same can be said of the characters. In what will prove most threatening to flesh-and-blood actors, the virtual figures here are sufficiently real-looking to evoke virtually emotional (and virtually erotic) responses. It would seem that computer animators have cleared the major hurdles in the way of creating wholly credible human characters and now are in the home stretch toward achieving it. More than any feature film that has appeared to date, this one makes one ponder the uneasy question of how replaceable actors may be — and how soon — in dramatic material.
This is hardly to make any claims for the emoting done by the computer drawings herein, which are no more emotionally expressive than animated characters have been over the decades. But it must also be acknowledged that Aki has far more palpable impact than a normal cartoon character, both because of her demure, seemingly unconscious sexiness and her unusual degree of intelligence, spirituality and focus. As an object of appeal and admiration, and as a role model, she rates very high, even if she was created in a computer on Waikiki Beach.
Once the storyline emerges from the shadows, it has something to do with the crisis among humans as to how to fight the aliens. The military, repped by the determined General Hein (voiced by James Woods), naturally wants to blast them back to wherever they came from with his all-powerful Zeus Cannon. Although Hein is restrained by a reason-seeking Council, there isn’t much time, which puts heavy pressure on the already infected Aki (smartly voiced by Ming-Na, who previously did the vocal honors for Mulan) and her egg-headed mentor, Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) to find the eight spirits that, combined, will create an energy wave to offset the predatory force repped by the spectral aliens.
Since the ghostly monsters are too pale and ephemeral to be truly scary, some more vivid adversaries are introduced in nightmare visions Aki has courtesy of her alien infection. But the Eastern p.o.v. is pronounced, and even the presence of Yank-speaking-and-looking characters isn’t enough to prevent this from feeling more like a Japanese film than an American one.
A potential romance between Aki and her crew’s captain (Alec Baldwin) is nipped in the bud, but the captain will have his own impact on young femme viewers, as he’s been sculpted from the hardest brave-and-buff stone. Voicing is solid down the line, and pic evinces a craftsmanlike fastidiousness throughout all levels of production.