Final Fantasy (Japan/United States, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Computer gaming fans have two reasons to rejoice during the summer of 2001: Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. However, although both are based on best-selling software, the approach taken by the filmmakers (Simon West for Tomb Raider; Hironobu Sakaguchi for Final Fantasy) are divergent. While Tomb Raider is a live-action, Raiders of the Lost Ark-style action/adventure movie, Final Fantasy is a computer animated science fiction action film that borrows heavily from Aliens and Star Trek. The result, despite lacking in originality, is fast-paced and highly watchable.

The year is 2065. Earth is a battle zone, with pockets of humanity hiding behind barriers in megalithic cities from the "phantoms", alien invaders which have the capability of sucking the life force out of human beings. The war has raged since the arrival of the aliens in the Caspian Mountains, and all human settlements outside of the barriers have been laid waste. Dr. Aki Ross (voice of Ming-Na), an intrepid scientist and protégè of the revered Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland), is "collecting" the 8 "spirits" that, when combined, will generate an energy wave to neutralize the aliens. She is aided by a small commando team comprised of Captain Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin), Neal Fleming (Steve Buscemi), Jane Proudfoot (Peri Gilpin), and Ryan Whittaker (Ving Rhames). While the council governing Earth backs Aki and Dr. Sid's plan, the ruthless and influential head of the military, General Hein (James Woods), advocates a more violent solution - using the Zeus cannon to obliterate the aliens, possibly damaging the Earth, as well. It becomes a race against time, with Aki and her group trying to collect all the spirits before General Hein unleashes the power of the Zeus cannon.

The aspect of Final Fantasy that will receive the most attention is neither the storyline, nor the film's close kinship to anime, nor its roots in the gaming world. Rather, it's the movie's look, or, to be more precise, its attempts to realize computer-generated, synthetic actors as replacements for flesh-and-blood thespians. This is, of course, not the first time humans have appeared in a computer animated motion picture (one needs search no further than Shrek to find examples), but it is the first time an attempt has been made to accurately mimic the human form with all of its subtle characteristics.

So, is it possible to tell that the individuals in Final Fantasy are animated, or do they look so real that they can be mistaken for actors? In medium and long shots, especially when the lighting is dim, the computer creations are extremely convincing. Their overall appearance and movement mimes that of any human. Up close, however, no one would confuse these creations with real people. There are all sorts of minor glitches that betray them as animated (fingers in particular seem to be a problem - they're too long and slender). Don't misunderstand - what the creators of Final Fantasy have done is impressive, and it's leaps and bounds beyond anything previously accomplished (even in Shrek), but there's room for improvement.

One issue that Final Fantasy raises about computer generated people is whether it's a good idea to employ bankable stars as their voices. In Final Fantasy, a combination of well-known vocal talents (Alec Baldwin, James Woods, Donald Sutherland) and lesser-known individuals (Ming-Na, Peri Gilpin) are used. While Ming-Na may be familiar to viewers of "E.R.", her voice does not immediately conjure an image of her face. As a result, Aki comes across as a fully-realized character, with the voice wedded to the image. That is not the case for Alec Baldwin's Gray. We know Baldwin's voice, but Gray looks more like George Clooney than Baldwin, and this creates a disconnect. After all, we're hearing Baldwin's voice, but not seeing his features. Similar problems arise with the characters voiced by Woods and Sutherland, and, to a lesser extent, Ving Rhames and Steve Buscemi. Until now, this has not been an issue, but this is the first time viewers are being presented with animated humans that look close to the real thing. It's one thing for Eddie Murphy to provide the voice of a jackass; it's another for Donald Sutherland to lend his vocal abilities to someone who looks like a cross between Donald Pleasence and Fu Manchu. In the future, the best approach might be to use relatively unknown voices (like Ming-Na's) in movies such as this.

All of that aside, Final Fantasy is a rousing science fiction adventure that contains enough action to keep the average viewer engaged. It pilfers shamelessly from other movies, but that's not necessarily a problem, since very little in the science fiction universe can claim to be original these days. The commando group's battles with the phantoms are reminiscent of the space marines' encounters with the creatures in Aliens. The idea of an all-encompassing life force sounds suspiciously like something from Star Wars (not that it was new then, but that's what most contemporary viewers will associate it with). And the film's ending bears more than a passing resemblance to the way Star Trek: The Motion Picture concluded 22 years ago.

Visually, the film is stunning, and it's not hard to understand the obvious advantages of doing this kind of project in the animated arena. (Although, with today's technology, it could have been done with real actors inserted into all of this imaginative, computer derived scenery.) The action sequences, whether in outer space (where the Zeus cannon waits to unleash its deadly fire power) or in the ruins of "Old New York City", are smoothly, spectacularly rendered. There are some complex camera angles, such as when Aki views the devastation of a planet in her dreams, or when we look up at her from under the water. Even as recently as ten years ago, a film with this much scope and imagination would have been financially and technically unfeasible. (It's still expensive, reportedly costing about $140 million.)

Final Fantasy is more story-centered than any of its game-based predecessors. The characters, despite their digital origins, are developed with enough care to meet the needs of the screenplay and to forge a rudimentary bond with the audience. Pacing is also important; Final Fantasy moves quickly enough that some of the less interesting script elements don't bog the picture down. It's also worth noting that Final Fantasy doesn't seem like it was based on a computer game. It has the kind of dramatic structure one might expect from a more "classic" motion picture.

Final Fantasy gives audiences a chance to glimpse the future of action/adventure/science fiction movies. With a more cutting-edge script and better-realized characters, there's no reason why this kind of motion picture cannot be as satisfying and fulfilling as any live action endeavor. Final Fantasy is an excellent first step, and a fine entertainment experience in its own right, but its true achievement is to open a window onto the next frontier for computer animation.

Final Fantasy (Japan/United States, 2001)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2001-07-11
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1