Whatever charges may fairly be levied against director Takeshi Nozue’s “Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV,” let no one claim that it isn’t actually a movie. It will be screened in cinemas. It is nearly two hours long. It introduces characters, puts those characters into conflict, and resolves that conflict at the end. It takes place in a fully realized, fantastical setting. It contains noticeable product placement and an end-credits stinger. In other words, it’s a movie.
And yet, more than any theatrical entertainment product released in recent memory, “Kingsglaive” raises the question “is this actually a movie?” with unusual urgency. Bowing in advance of Square Enix’s long-delayed fifteenth entry in the venerable Final Fantasy video game franchise, “Kingsglaive” exists entirely for the purpose of raising awareness for the game’s November launch. In that very limited context, it’s probably a success: Created with rich, detailed motion-capture — miles removed from the two previous attempts to adapt the Final Fantasy universe onto the big screen — it’s an undeniable technological achievement that will surely whet the appetites and raise the expectations of potential game buyers. But for those stodgy traditionalists still holding out hope that cinema can survive as an autonomous art form, it’s hard not to see this garish glorified game trailer as a troubling sign of things to come.
As a series, Final Fantasy has exerted an enormous influence on the development of role-playing video games since its launch nearly 30 years ago, and left its mark on more than a few feature films as well. Which is why it’s disappointing to see “Kingsglaive” mine the most hoary cliches of fantasy and science fiction filmmaking with such shameless promiscuousness. With a rather straightforward narrative structure and a borderline nonsensical plot, “Kingsglaive” follows the adventures of the titular band of mystical-ninja-space-marines over a few fateful days, in particular the hotshot warrior Nyx Ulric (voiced by Aaron Paul), who resembles Jason Sudeikis cosplaying as Qui-Gon Jinn.
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The ’glaives, as they prefer to be called, are able to teleport with the aid of boomerang-shaped throwing daggers, and are tasked with protecting the realm of Lucis and its capital city Insomnia (whose name almost seems to be trolling for bad film critic puns), from the incursions of the evil Niflheim empire. The Lucii king Regis Lucis Caelum CXIII (Sean Bean, yet again playing an ill-fated monarch) possesses a magical crystal that protects Insomnia with an invisible shield; the Niflheim command a corps of enormous kaiju demons and, for some reason, a very large, very angry octopus.
After a particularly fierce battle, Niflheim makes a peace offering to Lucis: They’ll lay down arms and grant Insomnia its sovereignty, so long as the king arranges a marriage between his son Noctis (unseen here, though soon to be the protagonist of the upcoming video game) and a princess named Lunafreya Nox Fleuret (Lena Headey, once again playing a royal with complicated sibling issues), glimpsed as a child in an utterly unintelligible prologue.
Nyx is assigned to guard the princess in the uneasy hours leading up to the treaty signing, and he begins to suspect, along with virtually every single other character (including the king), that the king is walking into a trap. Of course, he is, and after a solid hour consisting of the kind of talky, dully expository cutscenes that most gamers impatiently skip, the film finally explodes into an endless orgy of brightly colored detonations, building-smashing, and plentiful grimacing. Along the way, “Kingsglaive” introduces roughly two dozen supporting characters and asks us to gasp at their double-crosses, hiss at their villainy, and sob at their untimely deaths without bothering to adequately explain which side they were originally on, what their evil scheme entails, or how they died.
Like many a poorly-plotted video game, “Kingsglaive” manages to skate by for a while on the sheer splendor of its visuals. Insomnia is rendered as a curious sort of magical Tokyo, where arachnid-shaped spaceships patrol the sky over billboards and office buildings, and temple knights in flowing silk robes drive Audis and talk on cell phones. The level of realistic detail in the CG work is often exceptional, to the degree where one wonders if certain scenes couldn’t be swapped out for live-action recreations without anyone noticing. (There are a few sketchy stretches here and there, however: Princess Lunafreya moves with the not-quite-human rigidness of a game character, and several wide shots of faceless cheering crowds wouldn’t be out of place in Mario Kart.)
Presumably, these finely-crafted worlds will be far more rewarding for players to explore on their own, and it’s hard to imagine the game could be more stupefyingly written than its namesake film. Though there are times when the screenplay’s head-scratching idiosyncrasies exert a charm of their own. At one point, Lunafreya and Nyx are horrified to discover that wasp-like robots are following them via a tracking device. Rather than toss the tracking device out a window and run the opposite direction, they literally just sit there staring at it and sharing backstories for several minutes until a new wave can come attack them again. Finally, a film has managed to capture the exquisite frustration of watching someone else play video games badly.