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Monday 16 July 2001

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

Starring Voices of Ming Na, Alec Baldwin, James Woods and Donald Sutherland
Directed by Hironobu Sakaguchi
Written by Hironobu Sakaguchi, Al Reinert and Jeff Vintar
Rating: PG-13
Length: 106 min

Reviewed by John Shirley

(Exclusive to Locus Online)

A year or so ago I was hired to write the script for the Fox network’s computer-animated Halloween special, to be based on Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. A Texas-based CGI company had gotten the gig of producing the animated special. I wrote as good a script as I was allowed to, and had hopes of having created an annual family favorite for Halloween, like the old Grinch cartoon was for Christmas. The wretches from Texas kept putting Fox-TV off, and then turned their rough cut in literally a few days before it was to air. The characters looked less realistic than marionettes on strings. Their arms were like tree limbs, their hands like cactus spines, their movements spastic, their reactions completely off. Everything about the animation was nightmarishly wrong—and the little film had the worst editing and directing I’d ever seen. It was ugly, and utterly incoherent. My heart was broken; I actually wept in disappointment when I saw it.

Oh if only the Texas Wretches had one-thirtieth the ability, prep and, doubtless, funding, the makers of Final Fantasy had. Though not yet ready to replace live actors, the CGI characters of Final Fantasy are in many respects remarkably realistic, stunningly believable; and in every other respect the film is so much a visual feast some viewers may feel gorged and over-fed before the meal is quite done.

Set in a 2065 where the Earth has been ravaged by a mysterious, strangely ethereal invasion of meteor-borne aliens, Final Fantasy (roughly based on a video game I’ve never played) follows the quest of its computer-generated heroine, Aki, to find the 8 Spirits which will restore Earth’s Gaia field to health, and stop the depredations of the ectoplasmic aliens. Aki is voiced by Mulan’s Ming Na; her mentor, a Wise Old Scientist named Dr Sid, is voiced by Donald Sutherland. Ben Affleck’s attorneys could make a pretty good case that his face was stolen for Aki’s estranged boyfriend, voiced by Alec Baldwin. From some angles he’s indistinguishable from Affleck.

The premise is a metaphysical conceit, a bit of a New Age riff with liberal doses of James Lovelock and his Gaia Hypothesis, devolving upon soul-stealing alien ghosts from an atomized planet. The story is by turns confusing and engaging, with some pretty fair plot regarding an anti-alien fanatic with philosophical “scientism” damage (James Woods’ character), opposing our more sensitive heroic cadre, and a giant orbital energy weapon called Zeus. Only our heroes sense the murky and doubtless symbolic risk of our destroying ourselves when “Zeus” destroys the aliens. (Though Zeus is eventually fired off, that risk was, to me, never clearly settled).

Said aliens are some of the best ‘creatures’ in film, ever. Gorgeously fantastic, they’re translucent, at first, just glimpse-able, becoming more visible later, when they’re ‘charged’, revealing themselves to be exquisitely well-imagined and visually articulated. The same can be said about most of the surfaces in the film: the machinery, the settings, the human interactions with technology—which in this film achieves a high level of pure science-fictional extrapolation, its speculation expressed almost entirely through graphics.

Final Fantasy’s theme is thought-provoking, suggesting that we are called to understand the natural world as the proverbial “whole that is more than the sum of the parts”; that life on Earth, in totality, is not a that—but a who. That we should come to grips, in a harmonious sense, with ‘otherness’; that an alien species may be, on some metaphysical level, like the female to our male, something to unite with. Indeed, the imagery when an alien spirit probes and enters Aki’s body is understatedly erotic.

To my already-overburdened 48-year-old mind, the story is rather too information-rich to sort and collate. Doubtless I missed something, but at the end I wasn’t quite sure what the Eight Spirits were, and how they fitted into the climax, and what exactly became of the alien Gaia that had invaded our Earthly one. Still—I got the general drift, and you probably will too. The film is so rewarding on other levels that the gist seems to be enough.

The dialogue is professionally composed; characters are mostly pro forma, with their requisite portion of Hollywoodish wisecracks and even some Disney-dialogue moments. But the CGI is the real star here—the surface textures and animation the real art. Though at least one reviewer claims that movie stars need not worry—I’m not so sure. While these CGI generated people don’t completely convince, at times they come close. In some shots they cannot be distinguished from real people—or almost.

And I found myself collaborating with the animation. One is so persuaded that one fills in the blanks, making the figures, in one’s own mind, perhaps even more real-seeming than they are.

Skin surfaces are astoundingly real; these characters have age spots and five o clock shadow and moles, and veins on the backs of their hands—and it’s all quite convincing. Aki’s hair looks and moves like real hair (it’s almost a character in itself); facial expressions are a little stiff, but on the whole surprisingly in-the-pocket. Those faces do the job—sometimes better than cell animation’s faces.

The realism stumbles on the movements of limbs and necks and torsos and appendages—they’re good, for CGI, but still stiff, the arms sometimes pivoting like the limbs of dolls, on the shoulders, and the hands never quite compellingly authentic in their motion. The flow of human movement is not perfectly there—and I’m almost relieved…

I thought I was being satirical when writing fiction about computer generated “actors” whose fans never knew them to be animations, who had fake scandals and marriages and kids made up for them…

Now I suspect that Aki will soon have her own fan club. And doubtless her own scandals.

Final Fantasy may not succeed in the theatres in a big-money sense, but it’s sure to have a perennial cult following—and justifiably. Sakaguchi’s directing is smooth but energetic, neatly locked into clever cuts and fades. The imagery is artfully composed—credit the Japanese sensibility—and finely detailed, with a superb illusion of three-dimensionality, a flawless use of light, internally consistent technology and design. One could see Final Fantasy a number of times and still catch fresh visual nuances.

Even if you don’t think you’ll dig the story—and many might not—I’d advise seeing the film on the big screen for its historic importance, at least. You can say you were there. Because Final Fantasy is a milestone in media history.

John Shirley is the author of numerous books, including the forthcoming Demons from Ballantine/Del Rey, the Bram Stoker award-winning Black Butterflies (Leisure books) and Darkness Divided from Stealth Books. He is also a writer for screen and television. The authorized website is

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