Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)

Rating: ***
Release Date: 7/11/01
Cast: Ming Na-Wen, Alec Baldwin, Donald Sutherland, Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, James Woods

An amazing visual spectacle that manages to combine the artistic mastery of Japanese filmmaking with the low-brow stupidity of Hollywood mentality. Some time in the future, a meteor collides with Earth and unleashes a plague of "phantoms" which threaten all life on the planet. Thirty-seven years later, a group of scientists led by Dr. Cid (Donald Sutherland) are close to discovering a solution to the phantom menace (hee, hee), but their theories of spirit energy are not overly popular with the people in power (i.e. the military). They prefer a more direct approach, and favor using a giant weapon called the Zeus Cannon to destroy the alien aggressors - even at the risk of destroying the world. The key to the entire crisis is a young female doctor named Aki Ross (Ming Na-Wen), who has been gifted with visions of the phantom world. She, along with a small military tactical team led by her ex-boyfriend, Captain Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin), make a desperate attempt to follow through with Dr. Cid's theories about the Earth's life spirit (Gaia) and prevent the Zeus Cannon from being used. Naturally, everything goes to hell and (nearly) everyone dies.

As expected, the people at Square have created a visually stunning film, and the film represents the next evolutionary leap in virtual filmmaking. Although it uses the "Final Fantasy" branding, it has nothing to do with the video game series, which should come as no surprise since even the games have nothing to do with each other. What does bring the whole "Final Fantasy" franchise together is that they all share a common theme and a particular style of visual story telling. The art direction and cinematography are superb and everything about the film is simply amazing - except for the dialog. I could deal with the simplistic and clichéd B-movie plot (which is redeemed by the unapologetic ending), but the utterly stupid banter from the entire supporting cast is just downright painful to listen to. Only Aki and Dr. Cid have anything worth saying in the film. The romantic angle between Aki and Gray is also weak and unconvincing, as there's no real "chemistry" between the intelligent strong-willed doctor and the sensitive muscle-bound jarhead. Many critics blame the lack of chemistry on the fact that they're not real actors, but that's absurd. Countless animated films feature incredibly realistic and emotionally gripping relationships (often more so than live action films), and even Square's "Final Fantasy" video games feature compelling romantic themes. (just look at Squall and Rinoa from "Final Fantasy VIII" if you're not convinced)

And speaking of virtual actors, I kind of wish that Square had gone with a more stylized approach to character design (like in "Final Fantasy VIII"). Whenever you push the boundaries of hyper-realism, you're only inviting critics to look closer and find the flaws. When you see an artificial human that looks extremely realistic, you're naturally going to find and accenuate flaws because the human ego doesn't like to be tricked. This can sometimes detract from the suspension of disbelief and the overall enjoyment of the film. With a more stylized and "unrealistic" approach, you immediately accept the fact that the actors are virtual and move on, instead of nitpicking the fact that the actors aren't "perfect." However, there are very good arguments for both sides of the issue, and it all comes down to how well people utilize any given technology to convey their ideas with the greatest impact. But regardless of all these interesting issues about technology, perception, and presentation, it remains quite clear that this film holds a very special place in cinematic history.