Landmark films — ones that represent some sort of milestone in the history of cinema — don’t always carry their historical and artistic prominence gracefully. Some milestones are also masterpieces: for example, Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the first animated feature color film. But others, like The Jazz Singer, the first "talkie," are hardly worth watching, except for historical value.
Fans of the still-new field of computer animation are fortunate that the first fully computer-rendered feature film, Pixar’s Toy Story, is a truly wonderful film. In fact, computer-animated films generally have tended to be good — sometimes great. A Bug’s Life; Toy Story 2; even Antz and Shrek… they may not all be to everyone’s tastes, and they may not all be appropriate for all audiences, but there’s not a bad film in the lot.
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within has the distinction of being the first computer-animated feature film to achieve something approaching photorealism with a cast of non-cartoony human characters. The effect, although far from perfect, is nonetheless impressive, and sets a new standard for the medium.
Final Fantasy may also go down in history as the first genuinely bad computer-animated feature film. (Another mediocre effort, Disney’s Dinosaur, isn’t fully computer-generated: Live-action locations and backgrounds were used.)
Based on a computer game, Final Fantasy is always interesting to look at, and is sometimes visually spectacular, but it hasn’t transcended its gaming origins. The sci-fi scavanger-hunt premise hasn’t been fleshed out into a coherent or satisfying story. The heroes, though eye-poppingly rendered, remain emotionally as one-dimensional as any computer-game avatar. Even basic rules and motivations never become clear. To be sure, computer games don’t always spell out the rules for the player from the outset; sometimes part of the point of the game is discovering the rules for oneself. But in Final Fantasy the movie, we never entirely find out what’s going on.
For example, there’s a device in the movie called the "Zeus Cannon," designed to destroy alien "phantoms" who, in the story’s post-apocalyptic setting, inhabit much of the earth. Of this device we are variously told that (a) it can destroy the phantoms only at the cost of also destroying the "spirit" of our own planet ("Gaia"); (b) it has no effect at all on the alien presence; and (c) it in fact strengthens the alien "Gaia" (which we learn is also here on earth) each time it is used. Even when the credits began rolling, I wasn’t clear whether the Zeus Cannon was incapable of destroying a Gaia after all, or whether it could only destroy the Earth Gaia but strengthened the alien Gaia, or what — to say nothing of why.
"Gaia," of course, was the name of mother Earth in classical pagan mythology, but in our day it’s become inextricably associated with New-Age eco-spirituality and neopaganism; and Final Fantasy is rife with such pop mysticism. "All life is born of Gaia," we are told in the film. "Everything has a spirit", from people to animals to plants, and at death these spirits "return to Gaia," enriching the whole with their individual memories and experiences. What happens when spirits for some reason don’t manage to return to their Gaia is a key point in the story. Where Gaias go when they die, though, is one of many mysteries the film doesn’t address.
Even fruitier than all this Gaia spirituality is the film’s conceit that the sensitively spiritual scientist-heroes who believe in it are liable to suffer persecution for their beliefs from an intolerant establishment. Thus the heroine’s avuncular mentor (Donald Sutherland) warns his protégé (Ming-Na) not to voice their "unpopular" ideas openly, ominously invoking the dreaded case of Galileo as an example of what happens to courageous scientists who boldly defend unpopular ideas in public.
Later, the mentor-scientist sweats through a hearing before an unfriendly ruling body. This body gasps its collective disapproval when the scientist is forced to acknowledge his belief in Gaia under cross-examination from an ominous inquisitor-like general, who sneers at this "fairy tale" while a council member stridently insists that the "Gaia hypothesis has never been proved."
Of course, the very use of the term "hypothesis" — or even "fairy tale" — in reference to belief in a planetary spirit named Gaia dignifies such belief beyond all reason. Gaia isn’t a "hypothesis" or a "fairy tale." Once upon a time, Gaia was a perfectly respectable myth (or at least a part of a respectable mythology), but now she’s only an icon of pop spirituality and environmental ideology. (And don’t even get me started on the Galileo bit, which will probably have scientists in the audience as well as Catholics fuming. For some historical perspective on the controversy between Galileo and ecclesiastical officials, see "The Galileo Controversy" from Catholic Answers.)
When they aren’t spouting New-Age mysticism and impenetrable tech-babble about "opposing bioetheric waves" and "phantom particles," the characters mostly communicate in urgent-sounding clichés, such as "That’s a minute we don’t have!" and "Let’s do this thing and get the hell out of here!" The story, too, is weary with clichés, from the military man who’s inevitably evil, to the black man who’s inevitably the first to go down, to a pair of characters swiped directly from Aliens who die together just like they did in that movie.
Perhaps it’s better simply to ignore everything but the visuals. Perhaps Final Fantasy would actually play better as a silent film, accompanied perhaps by a techno soundtrack and a few well-chosen subtitles, like, "Whoa! That’s some big scary thing over there!" and "I have no idea what’s going on, but it sure looks cool!"
And it does, after all, look cool, which is the only conceivable reason to see the film (and the only reason it rates as high as a "C-"). If it had been filmed with live actors, there would be no reason to see it at all. Of course, there already are lots of live-action movies like that. Final Fantasy stands out because computer animation is such painstaking and unusual work that those who bother to do it at all usually have a better story to tell. (The same holds true of stop-motion animation, like Chicken Run and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Only hand-drawn animation, which is also painstaking but not unusual, has been likely to yield inferior results.)
Some critics have derided Final Fantasy’s "synthespians" for their mannequin-like appearance and unnatural movements, but the fact remains that they represent a major leap beyond the human characters of Toy Story 2 or Shrek.
And yet Donkey and Buzz Lightyear were far more interesting as characters than this film’s dull heroes. The appeal, such as it is, of Final Fantasy is that it shows us new possibilities — not that it does anything interesting with those possibilities. For that, there’s always next time. Despite its name, there’s nothing "final" about Final Fantasy. Like The Jazz Singer, it’s a first, not a last, liable to be followed by more worthy efforts.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.