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Final Fantasy : The Spirits Within (Hironobu Sakaguchi & Motonori Sakakibara) 2001


    The first (and possibly last) film by Japanese videogame house Squaresoft, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within attempts to bridge the rapidly closing gap between videogames and films. It's an ambitious attempt to do a lot of things that are supposed to not work. There is a dramatic, adult plot played out with animated characters. There is an abundance of the metaphysics and philosophy commonly found in anime in an English language film. There's a melancholy tone to the proceedings, a funeral solemnity, in what is supposed to be a summer sci-fi action blockbuster. There's a lousy plot. Here's a film, though, that's so gorgeous, so able to transport the viewer, that normal sticking points like clichéd plot and hackneyed dialogue don't much matter.


    It comes as no surprise to find that the film is based on a videogame series: it's got the look of one. Supposedly, the audience is expected to be so blown away by the technical prowess used in making the characters look lifelike, that they are supposed to forget that they are CGI animations. I never was able to lose myself in that illusion, but the film's visuals are gorgeous nonetheless, and there's no denying that the feats accomplished here define the current state of the art in animation. Obviously, there is a large segment of the audience that will reject this film, but it feels programmed for a hard core anime audience, so that's not surprising. Thankfully, the film doesn't pander to the audience much either. It assumes you are able to understand the discussions its characters have about "Gaia" and "Spirits". It assumes you won't be frustrated when the film's monsters are  revealed to be something less than that. It's also not afraid to be a little dark.


    The film's vision of the future is bleak. The earth has been ravaged by monstrous Spirits, huge, bug-like creatures that kill people with a mere touch. The story follows a young doctor as she attempts to find the last remnants of life on Earth in order to defeat the menace. That's not a lot of plot, but the film hardly needs it. The feeling of dread created by the Spirit attacks is tangible. Some of the creatures seem actively willing to attack the humans. Others, seem to treat them as we do normal earth-bound insects, with apathy. The shots of the victim's soul as it is ripped from their corpse when they come in contact with a spirit is haunting. The film is not afraid to kill off cast members, and the ending is more subtly cathartic than an outright victory. The film is a direct descendant of Cameron's Aliens, and, like that film, it is more of a roller coaster horror show than an enjoyable experience. The set pieces are masterfully done, even if we can't quite get the same sort of thrill as in a less despondent flick. Nonetheless, the visual imagination on display combined with the courage to veer from the sci-fi ghetto's norms makes it one to see.

* * * *

October, 2001

Jeremy Heilman