The marketing gurus at Sony Pictures–the same geniuses who gave the world David Manning and phony “testimonial” TV ads for their pictures–are telling us that “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” is a watershed cinematic event, the first totally computer-generated animated film designed to look “realistic” (or, as the press materials put it, “hyperReal”) in human terms. (Kid flicks like “Toy Story” and “Shrek” are computer-generated, of course, but their characters are hardly intended to be dead ringers for flesh-and-blood men and women, nor are their backgrounds designed to appear “real.”) The fact is, however, that neither the settings nor the “actors” in this picture could be mistaken for actual entities. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course. Animation, after all, whether of the conventional or computerized variety, is exciting precisely because it goes beyond what’s palpable and material, allowing for flights of the imagination which could be only dimly achieved using breakable performers and hugely expensive sound stage settings. The problem in this case is not just that the makers fail to achieve what they’re apparently after, but that what they’re trying to achieve is wrongheaded to begin with: animators shouldn’t be attempting to mirror reality but to go way beyond it. In any event, the landscapes, spacecraft and charred city ruins depicted in “Final Fantasy” are as obviously phony as such computer-generated detritus is when it’s regularly inserted into live- action movies nowadays (“The Mummy Returns” and “Tomb Raider” are the two most notable recent examples). The difference here is that the people are phony-looking, too. Simply put, the “human” characters are grossly inexpressive lumps of plasticine; they’re certainly a big step up from the clay figures Ray Harryhausen occasionally utilized as stand-ins for real actors in some of the sequences of his stop-motion “Dynamation” epics (remember how the Sinbad figure in the claws of the Cyclops never really looked like Kerwin Matthews?), and they’re marginally better than what one sees on some Saturday morning TV shows (“Action Man” and its ilk), but they’re still stiff and unconvincing. They don’t walk quite right, and their facial movements, especially when they “speak,” are barely approximations. That wouldn’t matter to us, of course, if the backgrounds and human characters were highly stylized in the fashion of conventional animation. It’s precisely the attempt to make them more “realistic” that’s the mistake, and render them–especially the characters–dull. The failure of the effort is predictable, and the sad fact is that it would be preferable not even to have tried.
That doesn’t meant that there aren’t visually stunning elements in the picture. The glowing forms of the wraithlike aliens being fought by the intrepid band of surviving earthlings, for instance, are very impressive–silky, elegant and even a bit frightening. (The ethereal effect created when they suck the souls out of their human victims is gorgeous, too.) But curiously these figures are precisely the things in the movie that are the least “realistic” and most akin to old-fashioned animation. The remainder of the picture, which strives for a more down-to-earth look, is far less interesting precisely because it seems so unimaginative by comparison.
And then there’s the plot. “Final Fantasy” is based on a video game, and all one can say is that if the original is as turgid and narratively sloppy as the picture, it must be very boring to play. The basic storyline is sort of a gloomy variant of “Starship Troopers” (or of the short-lived TV series “Space: Above and Beyond”) gussied up (or, more properly, weighed down) with all kinds of mystical, New Agey mumbo-jumbo involving some sort of Neoplatonic World-Soul or “Gaia” and an effort by scientists to combat the alien powers by collecting eight spirits which, when brought together into a higher-consciousness union, will vanquish the threat. (Naturally, there’s an obsessive military man who deems the scientists’ plan “nonsense” and is determined just to blast everything to smithereens instead.) I have to confess that I couldn’t make heads or tails out of the gobbledegook that passes for exposition in the picture; all remained a terrible muddle, despite the fact that the piece plodded along so slowly that at times it appeared everything was being repeated two or three times. What is absolutely apparent is that the dialogue is crushingly banal, consisting of strings of cliches, punctuated by the kind of cheap, juvenile verbal jokes that proliferate in similar live-action pictures. It’s no wonder that the lines are, by and large, poorly delivered by the voice talent. Of the name stars, Alec Baldwin and Donald Sutherland recite their bits in the same wooden fashion they employ when stuck in hokey live-action movies, and James Woods gives us a snarling villain no different from countless similar non-animated bad- guys. Steve Buscemi provides the voice of Nick, the obligatory smart-aleck pilot who’s saddled with most of the purportedly funny lines; he’s lucky that he doesn’t actually have to appear on screen–it would have been as hard for him to hide his embarrassment at delivering such puerile stuff as it was when he appeared in the flesh in “Armageddon.”
In the last analysis, the only reason that “Final Fantasy” holds much interest is as a technical experiment. It exhibits what computer animation can and can’t do at the moment in creating more realistic locations and characters; and the result in that department is decent, if hardly awe- inspiring. But although some of the animation is striking, it’s a murky, gloomy movie that doesn’t provide a particularly enjoyable ride. As a narrative, it’s muddled, hackneyed and torpid, and the only emotional reaction it elicits from viewers is one of tedium. (One cares as little when one of the “humans” bites the dust as when an alien gets blasted to bits.) The real test is to imagine what you’d think of the movie if it were a live-action piece; most viewers, I think, would consider it a derivative, silly, sluggish adventure flick, and dismiss its mystical underpinnings as gibberish. The mere fact that it’s animated doesn’t alter that unhappy fact. “Atlantis” is no masterpiece, but it’s far better than this.