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Release: 2001, Sony
Starring: (voice talents) Ming-Na Wen, Alec Baldwin, Steve Buscemi, Peri Gilpin, Ving Rhames, Donald Sutherland, James Woods
Director: Hironobu Sakaguchi
MPAA Rating: [PG-13] violence, language
Genre: Science Fiction/Action

Unleash a new reality...

It is the year 2065, and the earth has been infested with savage aliens. Dr. Aki Ross, a young scientist infected with a terminal condition, holds the key to defeating earth's destroyers. With the help of her mentor and a military squadron called the Deep Eyes, she races against the clock to unlock humanity's final chance at salvation.

What's Good
a technological breakthrough in computer animation
features an imaginative story

What's Bad
unimpressive characters and voice acting
artform is still far from perfection
story becomes cumbersome and hackneyed

Reviewer: Andrew Manning (07/01)

Judging from my summary points, you might think I'm being bi-polar. "The story is imaginative, but it's cumbersome and hackneyed. The computer animation is a breakthrough, but still far from perfection." Hell, even when I re-read it, I can't tell whether I liked the movie or not.

When it comes right down to it, there's really only one reason to watch Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and that's to witness the evolution of computer generated animation. Indeed, it's probably more productive to view it with the academic interest of a first year film student rather than as a movie-goer out for entertainment. Visually, the film is a breakthrough, featuring an unprecedented amount of detail (an alleged 60,000 individual strands of hair are being rendered for the movie's virtual star). Textures and surfaces are richer than ever, and human skin is recreated with all the flaws and pores you'd find on flesh and blood actors. Only the annoyingly dark lighting mutes absolute wonder for all the eye candy.

But for all its accomplishments, Final Fantasy's computer animation still lacks the consistent grace and warmth of well-done, traditional animation. The characters come across like mannequins most of the time, with generally stiff movements and mouths that often don't sync with the voices. This is particularly problematic when corny, soap opera dialogue is coming out of those mouths, because you're watching an overacting voice matched with an underacting body. When Ming-Na Wen and Alec Baldwin deliver their sappy "I love you" speech, it's like watching a badly scripted puppet show. Actors are always talking about the importance of showing their eyes to the audience, and this movie truly emphasizes that notion by demonstrating the opposite--we learn quickly that facial expressions are paramount to getting the audience to swallow sentiment.

But these animated characters aren't without their moments. While they're robotic most of the time, there are indeed glimpses of disturbing reality. Scattered throughout the movie are a few instances when you think you are looking at real people. Subtleties like a sway in a character's walk or the crease of a brow breathe unexpected life into these computerized corpses. Again, if you are interested in the artform of this movie, then there are a handful of moments that are quite amazing.

The other issue that becomes a problem for this movie is its story. At its heart, it's very imaginative and original. The year is 2065, and the earth is a charred wasteland infested with ghostly aliens. But not just one species of aliens: a whole planet-full of species. And to make matters worse, this Noah's Ark of invaders is non-corporeal. They exist as energy, and humans must devise new tactics to detect and destroy them. Dr. Sid and Dr. Aki Ross believe that the aliens can be countered with specific energy patterns they call "spirits." They want to comb the earth for these patterns and use them to neutralize the aliens. But their research and ideas are untested, and time is running out for humanity. Meanwhile, the government--spurred on by the evil General Hein--wants to use a big ass gun called the Zeus Cannon to obliterate the aliens and scorch the earth in the process. (The powering up of the cannon is disturbingly similar to the firing of the Death Star, from the background music to the soldiers counting down.)

Unfortunately, the story's originality eventually falls victim to its own execution: its indulgence in metaphysics finally becomes cumbersome and confusing. By the end, the two doctors are coming up with convenient explanations for everything, while the audience is being jostled around with talk of spirits, Mother Earth, and the whole Circle of Life thing. It devolves into such nonsense that viewers will finally give up and just stare at the pretty pictures. You can tell the movie is dissatisfied with its own sci-fi technobabble by the way it pokes fun at itself. It's amusing for a little while, but the joke wears thin very quickly.

Adding insult to injury are the truly boring characters--they're as uninspiring as the story is innovative (hey, there's more of that bi-polar stuff). As the main villain, James Woods' General Hein is your typical, one-dimensional psychopath who is only concerned with fighting. He's absolutely the most evil you can get without becoming interesting. Steve Buscemi as the team's pilot answers the age-old question: what would happen if you imbued a Jason Priestley puppet with the voice of Squiggy? Peri Gilpin is the token tough chick commando a la Vasquez in Aliens. And Alec Baldwin's character is a total waste: an uninteresting team captain who spews enough tough-guy romantic crap to fill a whole afternoon of soap operas.

One should scrutinize their goals briefly before seeing Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Anyone looking for a sci-fi adventure would probably do better with the standards this movie derives many of its elements from. But if you're looking for technical achievement and have a longing to witness this artform advance in leaps and bounds, then by all means check this one out.

Rating: 5 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)

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