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'Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within'

Computer animation captivates in 'Fantasy'

Wednesday, July 11, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

As video-game movies go, "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" couldn't be more different from "Tomb Raider." Obviously, this bodes well for "Final Fantasy," opening today at area theaters.

"Tomb Raider" was your typical Hollywood summer blockbuster -- big, loud and stupid. "Final Fantasy" is more intimate, quiet and thoughtful, though it contains enough standard science-fiction action, hardware and character types to satisfy its target audience.


 
 
"Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within"

Rating: PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.

Starring the voices of: Ming-Na, Alec Baldwin, Steve Buscemi, Donald Sutherland.

Director: Hironobu Sakaguchi.

Critic's call:

   

 

But the movie's big draw, literally and figuratively, is its groundbreaking computer animation, which for the first time renders human characters credibly enough that you have to look twice to convince yourself they're not real. The computer does wonders for the landscapes as well, both "natural" and futuristic.

But be careful what you wish for. I not only admired the graphics, I found myself scrutinizing them to the point where it pulled me away from the movie. Boy, that doctor guy sure looks genuine but the heroine's skin looks a little plastic and that soldier is a bit blocky ...

And for all the time spent on the look of the movie, maybe screenwriters Al Reinert (an Oscar nominee for "Apollo 13") and Jeff Vintar should have worked a little harder on the sound. Some of their dialogue might have been cribbed from the moldiest items in Chilly Billy's collection of late-night losers.

Still, their storyline holds together well enough. In the year 2065, Earth has been overrun by alien creatures who crash-landed on a meteor and are usually invisible until they suck the living soul right out of your body. Humankind has holed up in domed cities as it tries to figure out how to destroy the aliens.

The military types, headed by General Hein (voice of James Woods), want to fire the Zeus cannon, a space-based laser designed to blast the aliens. But the scientific group led by Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) fears the Zeus cannon could harm Earth itself. With the help of his protege, Aki Ross (Ming-Na), he searches the planet in search of eight "spirit waves" that he thinks can neutralize the aliens' life force.

Don't ask. To oversimplify, it's basically the spiritualists against the materialists. To its credit, the movie tries to explain the motivations behind General Hein's hatred of the aliens and his refusal to consider alternatives to the Zeus cannon, but his obsessive conduct proves indefensible in the end. The film also tries to create a more complex explanation for the aliens but doesn't do enough with it.

The human characters remain interesting throughout although, graphics aside, they are not rendered with great depth and seldom approach any kind of emotional extremes. Aki, who battles not only the authorities but also inner demons that are not her own, is reluctantly attracted to Gray (voice of Alec Baldwin), the gung-ho captain of a military squad whose members include Neil (voice of Steve Buscemi), Jane (voice of Peri Gilpin) and Ryan (voice of Ving Rhames).

Director Hironobu Sakaguchi keeps it all moving along as the animation weaves a spell that holds you firmly in its grasp.

Sakaguchi is the creator of the Final Fantasy series of role-playing video games that inspired the movie. The best of these games achieve a depth of narrative and, yes, emotional content that puts many a Hollywood blockbuster to shame -- like, say, "Tomb Raider."

Lara Croft is all surface (but boy, what a surface). Aki Ross seems to actually think and feel. "Final Fantasy" has a brain and a heart. Artificial intelligence? It sure beats authentic mindlessness.

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