Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
2001, PG-13, 106 min. Directed by Hironobu Sakaguchi. Voices by Alec Baldwin, Ming-Na, Steve Buscemi, Donald Sutherland, James Wood, Peri Gilpin, Annie Wu, Ving Rhames.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., July 13, 2001
Is it live, or is it Memorex? And does it matter? Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, which is yet another film based on a video game, forces one to ask some tough questions: For example, “If computer animation has advanced so far that it is virtually impossible to tell if it's an actor or a wire-frame-based simulacrum onscreen, does that mean we'll finally be seeing a sequel to Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and “What's with all these films featuring giant bugs from outer space already?” Final Fantasy is, at its rough-and-tumble core, not much more than your typical slice of Japanese anime. The story -- something about a battle occurring in the year 2065 between eco-friendly Earth scientists and hordes of “phantom” aliens while “Gaia,” the Spirit of the Earth, hovers in the background (looking an awful lot like a big glob of Smuckers blue jelly) -- has the same incomprehensible flavor as so many other Japanimation films. (Did anyone really “get” Akira the first time they saw it? I thought not.) You can never quite get your head around what, exactly, is going on at any given time, but the images bombarding you are so delicious, so finally “out there,” that it's well-nigh impossible to wipe the silly grin off your face, much less pick your jaw up off the floor. In that regard alone, Final Fantasy is a landmark piece of work: Photo-realistic animation has never before been so, well, realistic, and although you're continually conscious of the fact that this has to be some sort of trickery (giant, heaving, many-tentacled beasties don't just line up for casting calls, you know), many of the characters, from leggy heroine Dr. Aki (voiced by Ming-Na) to the prunish and unnervingly accurate Dr. Sid (voiced by Sutherland, giving it his all) are shockingly lifelike, so much so that you respond to them not as cartoons but as flesh-and-blood talent. Does your average Hollywood Joe actor-type have reason to be alarmed about this development? I would think yes, especially in the case of background actors. That's a whole other skein of controversy yet to explode, and I'm not about to detonate it here. Co-written by Al Reinert (Apollo 13, For All Mankind) and Jeff Vintar, Final Fantasy is epic sci-fi of the sort L. Ron Hubbard and (the far more interesting) Robert Heinlein practiced so well. Jam-packed with breathtaking visuals -- the “phantoms” look like the fibrillating, otherworldly critters you might find thrashing about in a droplet of pond water when viewed with your grade-school microscope -- and enough good, freakish fun to sate even the hardest sci-fi heart, this is wonderful in the sense that it provokes a genuine sense of “gosh, wow” wonder. It doesn't always make as much sense as you might like (“Bird spirits?” What?) but there's no faulting the imaginations at work here, nor the miraculous talents of the animators. Unlike anything you've ever seen before, Final Fantasy is, finally, one for the history books, and tremendous fun to boot. It makes Lara Croft look like an old maid.