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Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)

by on 2011/05/13

“This is all beginning to make a creepy sort of sense.”

* * * *

Wall-E for shooter fans.” Or maybe “Starship Troopers for environmentalists.” Either phrase is an apt description for Square Pictures’ much talked-about — and much criticized — feature, The Spirits Within.

Ostensibly an offshoot of the Final Fantasy video games, this piece actually bears little connection to its progenitors or their progeny.

Set in a post-apocalyptic 2065, the Earth has been overrun by Lovecraftian hostiles called the Phantoms. Scattered human survivors, some orbiting in satellite habitats, have difficulty surviving against the aliens.

Meanwhile, scientist Aki Ross (Ming-Na) is plagued by recurring dreams. While she believes the dreams are a form of communication, she doesn’t understand the message. Are the aliens responsible, or is the Earth itself reaching out to her? She decides the scourge must be dealt with, and yet not at the cost of harming Gaia, the planet’s mythic spirit.

What follows is an extended military campaign reminiscent of the second Alien film. Aki gathers clues and solutions but, in doing so, she requires the protection of a group which doesn’t share her belief in Gaia.

Although I was struck by the production’s main selling point — its visuals — I’d like to point out the incredibly strong cast. Character voices are supplied by a raft of actors I had fun identifying: Alec Baldwin, Steve Buscemi (Ghost World), Keith David (Mr. & Mrs. Smith), Peri Gilpin (Frasier), Ving Rhames (Entrapment), Donald Sutherland (2011’s The Mechanic), and James Woods (Vampires). (Admittedly, I incorrectly identified Jean Simmons in my notes as “Judi Dench?”)

Still, the sound has gotten less press than the appearance. Many were impressed, although not everyone. It must be a thankless task to render nearly photorealistic images. The difference between “photoreal” and “nearly” is as infinitesimally subtle as it is glaringly obvious, even to the untrained eye. A silver medal winner is very nearly as good as gold; here the net result is likewise “close, but no cigar” although it succeeds in avoiding a plunge in the Uncanny Valley.

Yes, I made several disquieting observations. Human skin is too smooth, with few wrinkles, lines, pores, or fine hairs. Hair itself does not move well, too stiff and slow throughout. The post-apocalyptic pallour is uniformly greyish-brown, and the whites of eyes are hardly white enough. They resemble nothing so much as a 1960s Archie cartoon, with their creepy flesh-coloured eyeballs. Speaking of eyes, they often look crossed, and don’t always line up. Likewise, while the mouths are convincing, they sometimes move out of synch with their dialogue.

But that’s where my petty criticisms of the visual aspects end. Considering this work was completed in 2001, using technology half a decade older, it’s a wholly stunning achievement. What critic can reasonably expect the rendering of facial lines and peach fuzz with the CGI of fifteen years ago? Yes, it imbues the characters with a particular “look” but, if you view it as a style, you’ll spend far less time distracted, and more time entertained.

The true weakness for me was not in my eyes, but brought to mind. I could suspend my disbelief for the alien invaders, a planetary spirit, and dream communiques, but not for the faux emotional scenes. On at least two occasions, Aki and Gray have intimate discussions, unfortunately bringing the action to a sudden, awkward halt.

Fortunately, there are many more positives to season the experience. Geeks will thrill to the many cool touches of tech in the years to come: dream recording, landing gel, universal power packs, virtual consoles, and wrist mounted devices. They’re incidental trappings, however they help complete the world.

And it’s a world which pleasantly surprised me overall. Based on the movie’s title, I was expecting, well, a fantasy . . . not the science fiction picture here. Despite it being a future coloured by a new age philosophy I don’t personally believe in, it didn’t interfere with my enjoyment. I’ve encountered many complaints about Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, but I can’t say I agree. Its story was fun and involving, with a style that rarely distracted, and never detracted. Render this old hack impressed.

* * * *

Rated PG13

106 minutes

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