Lucas’ Fantasy

The only thing missing is some awkwardly timed anime-style guffaws. I for one was grateful for the omission.

Besides the fact that the film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was written and directed by the Final Fantasy video game franchise creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, there’s nothing especially final about the movie. If it hadn’t been for its poor box office, there surely would have been a sequel in the works. I wish there had, if only for further explanation.

There’s much, though, that’s fantastical. Final Fantasy of course is a completely computer generated movie with life-like characters in a futuristic outer space setting, though not genuinely 100% CGI. The movie’s character animators did use some motion capture of flesh-and-blood actors as a reference frame for all the complex body movement. Then they basically painted on top of these constructs the specific character skin type, hair, facial features, etc.

Nevertheless, the end product is truly one of a kind. George Lucas may have attempted to create a completely CGI character for his first Star Wars installment with Jar-Jar Binks, but Sakaguchi and his co-director Motonori Sakakibara take Final Fantasy to a whole other level by animating everything to very nearly photorealistic quality. The visual effects are so incredibly out-of-this-world, you’ll be hard-pressed to keep from blinking and inadvertently miss any of it. Apparently, this movie took about four years to complete with two animation teams (Japanese and American), the truest testament to the complexity of a movie this scale.

Yet, as it seems with so many movies these days (Matrix excluded), you can’t have both spectacular visual effects and spectacular plot. The plot in Final Fantasy is a very thinly veiled treatise for pro-Earth spiritualism, otherwise known as Gaiasm. The idea is that the planet itself is one huge living organism, not just a mere mass of individual living organisms dwelling together on a life-supporting rock.

Dramatic conflict comes in the form of mysterious life force invaders that have trashed human civilization before we had a chance to do it ourselves. What’s left of old New York City, where the beings dwell in numbers, is a crumpled shell, cars strewn everywhere and skyscrapers only sagging hulks. These early sequences are reminiscent of Blade Runner with its bleak rundown look.

Humanity has somehow survived and taken to a new bubble city underneath a protective shield that the energy beings can’t penetrate. Traditional weapons also don’t work on them since they are completely ethereal. They resemble glowing jellyfish, almost like the UFOs from The Abyss. In fact, the only recourse against these aliens is something called “bio-etheric” energy. Apparently Sakaguchi is quite taken with the pre-Einsteinian 19th century theory of the “ether” that permeated the universe undetectable and was the constant by which celestial mechanics was measured.

Anyway, these spirits are a little peeved at the world for fearing and hunting them. According to a few dissenters, namely Drs. Aki Ross (Ming-Na, who plays Dr. Chen from ER) and Sid (Donald Sutherland), the only thing that’s going to ward off the aliens is capturing eight special “spirits.” Why exactly this octet is so special, I have no clue. Coupled with quasi-technical jargon about the Earth’s Gaia, you can image the gobble-de-goop that ensues. It’s no less stellar than a typical episode of bewildering “Star Trek: Voyager” geek-speak.

Dr. Aki Ross’ physical character design is phenomenal, albeit completely emotionless. She’s a petite willowy anime character come to life, while grief, shock, passion, and laughter all look virtually the same. Ming-Na — whose name translates “enlightenment” — is no stranger to video game movies, previously starring in Street Fighter. She also brought Miss Mulan to life in Disney’s animated feature and does her best here. But I’m afraid Sakaguchi spent most of his budget making Aki’s ever-conditioned, ever-parted hair bounce around and not enough on emotion.

Flanking Dr. Ross on her search for the spirits is a band of futuristic marines. There’s Captain Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin) who also has that glassed-over nonplussed look all the time. He’s our stalwart hero. Then there’s Ryan (Ving Rhames), a burly black guy destined for demotion to Expendable Crewman. Following him is Neil (Steve Buscemi), the comic relief wise guy. He’s sort of the Private Hudson from Aliens without all the “Game over, man!” desperation. Next up is Jane (Peri Gilpin from “Frasier”). She’s the Aliens Vasquez analog, the masculine woman warrior trading manly jabs with Neil and Ryan. The hair budget definitely went to Aki’s character, because Neil and Jane both had really bad matted doll hair for most of the movie. Opposing our band of humans is General Hein (James Woods) perpetually grimacing, a caricatured evil megalomaniac.

These marines share some fantastic battle sequences, complete with Quake-like spiraling pulse cannons. In one of Dr. Ross’ particularly spectacular dream sequences, I was reminded of one of the FMVs in Star Craft: Brood War. Two opposing alien broods flood over a foreign landscape toward each other in the heat of battle. The scene ascends above the colliding crowd, looking down at Dr. Ross trapped between the two quickly approaching frontlines. Remember the Zerg descending upon the lonely terran marine in the Brood War movie? Classic.

Where the animators really excel is in disguising the imperfections of their nearly insurmountable task, that of recreating the intricacies of the human face. Wisely, there are lots of fast-moving action scenes. This is where the film looks the best. The “camera” has that Saving Private Ryan shaky handheld look to it, simulating a first-person warfare perspective. In the background, a great amount of detail is obscured, blurring the depth of field as in real life.

Lest the visual effects guys get all the credit, I thought the sound mix was especially good. Let’s be honest, if you watched this film on mute, it would look even worse. In fact, the sound mixers and foley wizards really do a great job here giving depth to the rendered images. Large carrier ships rock the earth (and the audience!) when they land, ethereal spirits suck the life forces from human soldiers with a gurgling molasses ripple, and alien hordes rumble across open battlefields. They really have solidified the audible essentials required for illusion: inertia and mass. The only thing missing is some awkwardly timed anime-style guffaws. I for one was grateful for the omission.

Roger Ebert was correct in saying that he felt like he’d seen something monumental, akin to the transition from silent films to “talkies.” Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within really is an achievement. Where filmmaking like this will lead is anyone’s guess. I can imagine George Lucas will be studying this one quite closely. Jar-Jar II, anyone?

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