July 17, 2001 -- "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" is the latest word in digital animation, it comes close to making animation look just like live action. It succeeds in making the viewer wish for the images of real people on the screen instead of fake ones. The tagline of the film is "Fantasy becomes reality" it is more like "Fantasy stays fantasy."
The story, named after a video game, concerns a small band of adventurers headed by scientist Aki Ross (voiced by Ming-Na) in search of earth spirits which can heal the earth from an invasion from another world. Aki is opposed by the misguided General Hein (voiced by veteran actor James Woods). Hein wants to destroy the invaders too, but his methods may well destroy the earth in the process. Aki is assisted in her quest by senior scientist Dr. Sid (voice by Donald Sutherland) and by the dashing soldier, Captain Gray Edwards (voice by Alec Baldwin), among others.
The movie is aptly named, for though it has the trappings of science fiction, it is nevertheless a fantasy, based on a mishmash of ideas lifted from Druids and other pagan and neo-pagan religions. The story invokes Gaia, the spirit of the earth, and several lesser animistic plant and animal spirits. The story is basically a quest, but a quest is for primitive talismans cloaked in the trappings of futuristic science fiction. In reality, science and technology are only ornaments in this story. There is an uneasy coexistence of science and rudimentary mysticism. The story reminded me of another animated film, "Princess Mononoke." Like that film, "Final Fantasy" seems to come from an Oriental world view. The story derives much of its power by invoking heroic, almost Messianic, self-sacrifice.
While the story is intriguing, the idea of trying to make an animated feature look like a live-action feature was a bit disconcerting. To a certain extent, it seems like an excercise in form. The human images in the film looked almost human, but lacked the physical and emotional nuance of human actors. It seems to me that making a live action movie look like an animated feature works much better than the other way around. There have been many successful action movies that were cartoonish. That way, you have the subtlty and nuance that only human actors can provide and you still have the option of using animation in action sequences and background vistas. The classic sci-fi show "Babylon 5" pioneered these techniques. You can also substitute animated characters for humans in many action sequences, but they are not good substitutes for romantic, dramatic and comedic interactions. We'll see how this develops in the future.
Aside from the robotic-looking humans, the animation in the rest of the film is quite good. The monstrous invaders with their translucent bodies are interesting-looking, as is the depiction of how they tear the life-force from their victims. The alien landscapes, the futuristic spacecraft and weaponry, are all well-depicted by the animation team. The film is directed by Hironobu Sakaguchi, who also co-wrote the screenplay. Sakaguchi has also directed production of the "Final Fantasy" video games. Voices for the characters are provided by Steve Buscemi (Neil), Ving Rhames (Ryan) among others and those already mentioned. This film rates a C+.
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