Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

on July 11, 2001 by Michael Tunison
   It's inevitable that discussion of "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within," the first major feature to star "photorealistic" digital humans, will focus on how convincingly the filmmakers have pulled off that much-anticipated bit of technical hocus-pocus. But however one feels about the time-intensive feat of rendering lifelike performances with a computer mouse, it's difficult to think of a set of flesh-and-blood thespians who could have done much better with this slow-moving, uninspired sci-fi opus.

   Based on the hit video game series he created, Hironobo Sakaguchi's directorial debut is set in 2065, some years after mysterious alien "phantoms" have laid waste to most of human civilization. Earthling attempts to blast the phantom menace off the planet have come to nothing, but twentysomething scientist Aki Ross (voiced by "The Joy Luck Club's" Ming-Na), her aging genius mentor (Donald Sutherland) and a squad of high-tech soldiers led by an old flame (Alec Baldwin) just might be able to turn the tide by canceling out the aliens' negative energy waves with the power of various mystical "spirits."

   While the film clearly pushes the envelope as far as computer graphics go, its vision of the future is disappointingly conventional--the standard dark world familiar from countless genre movies and comic books. Mostly, "Final Fantasy" serves as yet another illustration of how unimpressive even the most sophisticated effects work can seem when married to mediocre storytelling. Dramatically, the film is a leaden, unengaging mess, with laughable space-opera dialogue and a plot that often turns on vague, New Agey spiritual questions, making the stakes unclear straight through to the existential head-scratcher of a finale.

   As for the digital people, they're a little too eerily realistic to be interesting as animation and quite a bit too animated-looking to pass as real--an awkward middle ground that proves endlessly distracting. Actors who fear being replaced by digital thespians can relax for the time being. "Final Fantasy" isn't going to put anybody out of work. Voiced by Ming-Na, Alec Baldwin, Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi, Donald Sutherland, James Woods and Peri Gilpin. Directed and produced by Hironobu Sakaguchi. Written by Al Reinert and Jeff Vintar. A Columbia release. Animated/Action. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence. Running time: 105 min

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