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Star-Bulletin Features


Wednesday, July 11, 2001


art
COLUMBIA PICTURES
Dr. Aki Ross explores the surreal landscape of a
decimated New York City in "Final Fantasy:
The Spirits Within."



‘Final Fantasy’s’ reality
needs work, but
it’s still way cool


Review by Burl Burlingame
bburlingame@starbulletin.com

One of the neat things about animation is that it can be tweaked to death. Don't like that color, that angle, that lighting, or that expression? Redraw it, rerender it, re-imagine it. That's why animated films are so good at conveying a rush of information: All the distractions are edited out, erased by the process.

What's not so cool is that this can make a static film, one in which any element of visual surprise or of storytelling verve have been hammered away, flattened. The feeling of verisimilitude, of a world that exists beyond the edges of the screen, is lost. The view from the train window is interesting, but there are no twists in the track.

Which is why one of the most interesting things about "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" is that even though it is wholly rendered within the control-freak environment of the super-computer, much of it looks like it was shot by a hand-held camera held by a nervous cameraman.

This little touch goes a long way toward establishing the credibility of what we see unspooling on the screen.

And what we're seeing is a pretty damn cool movie.

"Final Fantasy" takes place in a not-too-distant future of gray and brown skies and shattered landscapes. Dr. Aki Ross, a slip of a girl in a form-fitting jumpsuit over her not-ample form (she looks as if Sailor Moon got drafted), ventures into the rubble of "old New York City" to search out some sort of biological sample.

As her flashlight and flare gun play over the wreckage, we're reminded we're in state-of-the-art country here. Any keyboard jock with a Bryce CD-ROM can create a landscape, but fantastically detailed industrial rubble? Way cool.

But then something that looks like invisible spirits starts rising from the wreckage. A detail of soldiers, clad in Heavy-Metal Jean Girard-style space suits, rescue her. One of the soldiers turns out to be an old swain of Aki's, a hunky guy name Gray.

Although they look tough, the soldiers are clearly spooked by the apparitions. Everyone barely escapes to "new New York City," which has a kind of force field to keep the creatures out.

There we discover that the creatures can invade a body like a parasite or, if they're big enough, simply yank out your living essence, your soul or spirit or whatever, like the core out of an apple.

Aki's been working with Dr. Sid, a kindly old guy with a Santa Claus beard, trying to find a solution to the creatures using "life-forces" and "earth spirits" while another faction, led by a surly, smirking, suicidal -- and clean-shaven -- bureaucrat, favors blasting the Earth with a super-duper space cannon.

Both sides know time is running out. There are few colonies of humanity left on earth. Track down and trap what is essentially a religious belief, or just start blasting away?

The mark of any such film is how well such twaddle is dumped in our lap. The mood in "Final Fantasy" is grim and unrelenting, and the plot unfolds in natural steps, one jump ahead of any obvious questions the audience might think of. It's a good script, one that doesn't preach, or worse, predispose.

The look won't surprise anyone who's seen "Aliens" or Japanese anime classics like "Ghost in the Shell," and the central conflict -- nature vs. technology, anima vs. animus, a celebration of chaos vs. a meditation on evolution -- is peculiarly Japanese as well.

The wild stuff spotted in the TV commercial, mind you, largely comes from dream or hallucination sequences in the film. For the most part, "Final Fantasy" takes place in a real universe where the laws of physics rule, albeit one in which mankind is nearly wiped out.

And the creatures are genuinely scary, even though we eventually feel sorry for them.

The human characters are something else, and they're right out of a hundred such movies, particularly the disposable soldier boys (and girl). Aki, Sid and Gray are a bit better and more rounded, thanks mostly to spirited looping work by Ming Na, Alec Baldwin and Donald Sutherland, respectively, but they're still pretty much cookie-cutter characters.

OK, let's get to the real question: Do they look real?

If real actors had their faces injected with Novocaine, if they had sore necks, didn't know what to do with their hands, had glassy eyes that rarely blinked, and had a curtain rod stuck up their keester, then sure, they look real.

The computerized rendering done here is miles ahead of anything you've seen before, particularly in texture mapping. There are many, many breathtaking moments of CGI animation, and we're not just talking robot armies and exploding planets -- some of them are quiet and lyrical, such as the simple flight of a hawk in which we see the feathers play against the changes in air pressure.

But no matter how many control points the team at Square mapped onto their human faces, it wasn't enough to make them seem human. The flat cartoon faces of "Atlantis" seemed more "real" than the mighty techno-wizardry brought here. Somehow, that's oddly comforting.


"Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within"
Rated PG-13
3 stars

Opens today at Consolidated Aikahi, Kahala, Kapolei, Koko Marina, Ko'olau, Mililani, Pearlridge, Waikiki & Ward; Signature Dole Cannery, Pearl Highlands & Windward; Wallace Enchanted Lake & Restaurant Row



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