Taking its title from the enormously popular video game series, Hironobu Sakaguchi's "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" is a landmark achievement in CG animation. With a full cast of human characters entirely evolved from computers, it is the most impressively detailed and life-like animation to have graced the silver screen--ever. Pretty images, however, do not a great movie make, so it is with much relief and elation to say that "Final Fantasy" has an--at once--somber, original, thrilling, and thought-provoking story with messages that dig far deeper than the usual sci-fi/action film.
Set in the year 2065, Earth has been taken over by threatening, transparent aliens who suck the spirit out of any living thing that they can get their hands on. In order to save the fate of mankind, Dr. Aki Ross (voiced by Ming-Na) and her trusting mentor, Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland), must find the last eight remaining spirits that have not been taken away by the so-called "phantoms," which hold the key to salvation. Aiding in their journey is buff nice-guy Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin), whom Aki finds herself taking a liking to. Standing in their way every step, General Hein (James Woods), who lost his family to the creatures, has vowed to take out the aliens by his own radical means.
Ambitiously written by Al Reiner (1995's "Apollo 13") and Jeff Vintar, "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" defies all expectations and then surpasses them, both in its historical leap in computer-generated animation, and its beautiful, multi-layered story that thoughtfully touches upon such subjects as life, death, human compassion, and faith. From the characters' skin pores, to their nearly flawless movements, to their gently blowing hair strands, people have never before looked quite so--well--genuine. Although it is still fairly clear that they are animated figures, sometimes it isn't so apparent, and this is when the CG creators' work really shines. Furthermore, the ruinous backdrops from which the action takes place is astonishingly naturalistic and awesome to look at.
The plot threads are every bit the animation's equal. While "Final Fantasy" could have been marred in futuristic nonsense and non-stop alien attacks, director Hironobu Sakaguchi's aims are significantly higher, both in scope and substance. The action sequences involving the phantoms seeking out the spirits of the characters are exciting and well-photographed, but the quieter, more subtle moments are what lifts the motion picture above being conventional. One such scene, in which Aki and Gray turn to each other in an instantaneous embrace as they mourn the tragic deaths of their crew members, is heartbreakingly powerful filmmaking that transcends the limits, up until this point, of modern animated movies. With a story that is infinitely more mature than most, and characters with a deep sense of humanity, it was easy to grow to care about them as if they really were living and breathing actors.
The voice work is distinctive and universally strong. Ming-Na strikes all the right notes as the determined Dr. Aki Ross, who is, perhaps, the most memorable sci-fi heroine since Sigourney Weaver in 1979's "Alien" and its sequels. Alec Baldwin holds up his end of the bargain in the other lead role, as Gray Edwards, a dead-ringer for Ben Affleck. The burgeoning relationship that forms between Aki and Gray is an involving, sweet one that doesn't feel forced or tacked-on. Rounding out the notable voice cast is Donald Sutherland; James Woods, whose villain role turns out to have an understandable motive and, at the very least, a trace of heart; and Ving Rhames, Peri Gilpin, and Steve Buscemi as the remaining members of Dr. Aki Ross' hard-working crew.
At a time when practically every week holds some sort of step forward in modern visual effects, "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" currently stands as one of the great artistic achievements in film history. A gorgeous, surprisingly meditative look at the beauty of life and the mysteries of death, the film is definitely not standard animated fare. It has the ability to inspire, contemplate, and most important of all, make you care.
©2001 by Dustin Putman