'Final Fantasy' pushes the boundaries of animation

by John Teti | 7/13/01 5:00am

Video-game movies do not enjoy a proud heritage. "Super Mario Bros.," "Mortal Kombat" and the like are, inevitably, unwatchable garbage.

The difficulty has been to create a film from a text that has only nominal narrative and character development -- to somehow transfer the essence of the game while removing the most crucial part, interactivity.

Square Pictures' "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" is a video-game movie, but that is the only similarity it bears to "Tomb Raider" and the other tripe that populates this subgenre.

First, "The Spirits Within" is the first movie to be produced by the same company that made the original video games. Writer and director Hironobu Sakaguchi was one of the original creators of "Final Fantasy," producing and directing recent entries in the series. So Square is not so much adapting a game as it is shifting creative energies to another medium.

The "Final Fantasy" franchise is the crown prince of the RPG (role-playing game), a type of game that places emphasis on rich characters and plot, as the player assumes a central role or roles in the story. This narrative-driven dynamic helps ease the game's transition to celluloid.

Another advantage of "Final Fantasy" is that it isn't dependent on specific characters or setting. All nine of the "Final Fantasy" games features a unique world independent of the other entries in the series.

Instead of familiar faces and places, the "Final Fantasy" games share motifs of loyalty, friendship and determination, accompanied by a subtle strain of fatalism. So Sakaguchi is free to invent a new world for "The Spirits Within" without being bound by his past digital creations.

Here, also, is a critical weakness of this film. Sakaguchi is used to creating meticulously detailed stories that gradually blossom over the course of the 60 to 80 hours it takes to complete a "Final Fantasy" game.

And while creativity often thrives under limitations, a two-hour running time proves to be too great a constraint for Sakaguchi, resulting in a predictable story that lurches, then limps to the closing credits.

Dr. Aki Ross (Ming-Na) is a scientist on an apocalyptic Earth set in the future. She is researching the eight spirits of the planet in pursuit of a life force that will eliminate a phantom race that is waging war on humans. Along the way, she is helped by a military man (Alec Baldwin) who looks like a cryogenically preserved Ben Affleck, mentor Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) and a kooky support crew.

Working against Aki is General Hein (James Woods), who is trying to convince the Earth Council that his dangerous Zeus Cannon is the best way to eliminate the phantoms, and that Aki's research is a dead end.

The plot is not the story with "The Spirits Within." The story is the lovingly rendered skin, hair and eyes -- oh, those eyes -- of Dr. Aki Ross.

Eye candy has always been a hallmark of "Final Fantasy." Square's developers pride themselves on pushing the technical bounds of the latest video-game system -- whether they were on the original NES, the Super NES or the PlayStation, "Final Fantasy" games have always been visually stunning.

Square worked for years to develop the software that created the 3-D humans in "The Spirits Within," and the computer animation is a surprising leap beyond similar efforts we've seen recently in "Shrek" and "Toy Story 2."

I take issue, though, with the breathless nature of recent write-ups of "The Spirits Within," touting "photorealistic" computer-generated images that could "replace real actors!"

Photorealistic? Perhaps in the bastardized lexicon of a critic hopped up on press-junket espresso. I have different ideas about the meaning of the word "photorealistic" -- specifically, a "photorealistic" work should closely resemble an actual "photograph."

Try this Patented Photorealism Test when you see "The Spirits Within:"

  1. Close your eyes and wait a moment.

  2. Open your eyes.

  3. Quick! Are you watching photographs of living human beings, or pretty computer thingies?

While not everyone will choose to use the word "thingies," I doubt that anybody will need more than a split second to determine that nothing on screen was filmed on a Hollywood set.

Human actors aren't going anywhere. Clearly, they still need to provide voices for these CGI models. But more to the point, we aren't so close to capturing the subtleties of real people.

If Aki is standing still and the audience is squinting a bit, they may be able to trick themselves into thinking that there is a real person on screen. Aki is so detailed, even slight wrinkles and blemishes show up. (Which raises another issue -- why can we see Aki's freckles while Julia Roberts is always made up to look like a porcelain doll?)

But when she starts moving, Aki gives herself away. Her movements are too stiff, too perfect. When the characters speak, they hardly move their lips at all -- perhaps to aid in the dubbing process, but it's an ugly effect.

There are brief moments when the film fools the eye into believing that the characters are real, but these usually occur when the camera is moving quickly, more exposing a weakness in current 35-mm film projection than a strength in Square's CGI capabilities.

"The Spirits Within" is a gorgeous movie, but it isn't an omen of big changes in the Hollywood talent system, and its looks don't compensate for a weak story. If you want an engaging narrative, pop "Final Fantasy VIII" into your PlayStation -- hope you've got a few days' free time.