The Final Fantasy video games have sold more than 33 million units worldwide. It’s a natural in the entertainment industry scheme of things to exploit such a successful franchise by spinning off a movie, T-shirts, "action figures," maybe even a TV version. There’s a guaranteed audience of fans out there.
On the plus side, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within uses state of the art computer animation techniques to create human characters with an unusually realistic appearance; the marketing gurus have named these "hyperReal" characters. More about that in a moment.
The film is also undeniably visually handsome. Placed in a post-apocalyptic year 2065, its scenes of Old New York City as a wasteland and a new New York City enclosed within what looks like a glittering Victorian greenhouse show the influence of sci fi predecessors like Blade Runner (the great pioneer of the sci fi universe-as-a-slum look, as contrasted with the sleek idealized settings of earlier efforts like Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon). Star Wars imagery has also been incorporated–air ships zooming between canyon walls, massive marching armies of robot-like creatures.
Finally, the alien invaders portrayed here are imaginative and intriguing to see; they have no corporeal presence, but are apparitions–glowing evanescent waves of spirit energy that take a wide variety of forms: dragons, octopi, insects, worms. And when they occupy a city, they sing like whales.
Now hang on. The heroine, Doctor Aki Ross, and her scientist mentor are seeking the spirit elements, which, when combined, will match the strength and intensity of the aliens and neutralize their destructive power. They espouse a spiritual approach, with talk of Gaia and the oneness of all things. Meanwhile, the military is acting characteristically militaristic and wants to throw everything they’ve got at the spirits, regardless of warnings that such a course of action will only aggravate the situation. Throw in a handsome Captain for a love interest for Aki, and a few squad members–a Black for political correctness, a wiseguy for comic relief.
What it all adds up to is formulaic storytelling with a thin overlay of genuinely hokey "spiritualism." There is no character development at all; the filmmakers apparently have assumed that the advance in realistic animation techniques will create character, when all it really creates are images. As it turns out, hyperReal is only halfReal. The stellar cast of voices includes Alec Baldwin, James Woods, and Donald Sutherland, but there’s little they can do to inject life into the stiff, uninspired dialogue. (And is that the great British film star, Jean Simmons, voicing a small role? She’s been left out of the otherwise terrific official website.)
So for all the technical accomplishments and visual splendor, director Hironobu Sakaguchi has come up with a run of the mill cartoon that may scare little kids and will send adults scurrying to the exits. As for the gamers, surely it is the interactive nature of the computer games that holds their interest and engages their minds. Sitting in a dark theater with no buttons to push, no joysticks to manipulate, no decisions to make, they will likely be disappointed as well. But if 33 million of them and their friends buy tickets, Columbia Pictures will laugh all the way to their very unspiritual bank.