Final Fantasy : The Spirits Within



Click here to buy & sell on eBay!Japan/USA 2/10001/10
director : Hironobu Sakaguchi
script : Al Reinert, Jeff Vintar (original story by Sakaguchi)
producers include : Sakaguchi
editing : Christopher S Capp
music : Elliot Goldenthal
lead voices : Ming-Na (aka Ming-Na Wen), Alec Baldwin, Donald Sutherland, James Woods
106 minutes

“Ever since I was little I’ve had mystical experiences. For instance, when I dreamed it was no different from reality. I’d call them stories rather than dreams – they were long and distinct, and after I woke up I could remember every detail. In my dreams I visited all sorts of worlds. Everything was extremely realistic. Gradually I couldn’t distinguish between the two, or maybe I should say that my dreams became more real than reality. This bothered me. “So what is reality?” I asked myself. “Where is my true consciousness?”” (Miyuki Kanda)

“I think inside all Japanese there is an apocalyptic viewpoint: an invisible, unconscious sense of fear. When I was at School Nostradamus’s Prophecies became famous, and that sense that “The End Is Nigh” wedged itself deep into my consciousness through the mass media. And I wasn’t the only one to feel like that. all Japanese at that time had the idea drilled into them of 1999 being the end of the world.” (Hidetoshi Takahasi)

It sounds like an arbitrary title, but the phrase “Final Fantasy” neatly combines the key Japanese preoccupations with the final and the fantastical encapsulated by these two interviewees from Haruki Murakami’s book Underground. In the west we’ve been familiar with the former since the days when Tokyo was subjected to annual celluloid annihilation by Gojira and his fellow atom-bomb surrogates, and the manga and anime genres have carried the doomsday baton into more recent times. Here, we get two Armageddons for the price of one: the destruction of an alien planet, and the resulting arrival on Earth of a planetary fragment carrying an vast invading force of lethal, apparently unstoppable alien phantoms.

But while ‘last days’ fears are relatively universal, many Euro-American viewers find the prominence accorded to dreams in Japanese movies harder to absorb. Acclaimed recent horror import Audition lost its energy in the final reel as it darted confusingly between fantasy and reality. In the west, “I woke up and it was all a dream” is not an acceptable means of concluding any narrative, regardless of how many layers of illusion are nimbly deployed.

In Final Fantasy, a movie whose visuals are entirely computer-generated, we dip in and out of into the dreams of our heroine, scientist Aki Ross (Ming-Na), and they’re some of the most spectacular sequences. This usually suggests we’re in the hands of film-makers blessed with imaginative vision but lacking the nous to integrate it into a coherent plot. But here the dreams actually assist our understanding the tortuous plot: Aki carries within her one of the alien parasites, from which she picks up subconscious images and messages. Following clues from her dreams, she realises she can pieces together the source and nature of the aliens – and therefore the potential to overcome them.

The audience’s quest for understanding is less straightforward, however. We’re constantly distracted by repeated echoes of other movies: while the nods to Aliens and Starship Troopers are presumably intentional, the strong echoes of Evolution, especially in the latter stages, are more coincidental and unfortunate. Here it’s James Woods as the psychotic military brass determined to blast the creatures to Kingdom come, but in terms of characterisation and motivation he’s roughly on a par with John Lithgow’s hissable Prince from Shrek. This being the future, meanwhile, Earth is of course ruled by an elite council whose members include a dignified, Morgan Freeman-ish black man and an benignly aristocratic, old white woman – though it’s startling to discover the latter is voiced here by none other than Jean Simmons (the Guys and Dolls / Black Narcissus veteran, not Gene Simmons, the long-tongued frontman of KISS).

More troubling is the way the script, straining to incorporate elements of the long-running computer game on which it’s based, bogs down into impenetrable mumbo-jumbo about Earth’s energy-essence threatened by the alien incursion. Whenever this force – known as Gaia – is mentioned, spooky music swells and Aki becomes even more gloomy than usual, which really is saying something. Though she engages in some token gunplay, Aki must be one of the most static of heroines, giving audiences plenty of time to wonder if she’s supposed to look like Bridget Fonda, Jennifer Connelly, or both. Her love interest – the equally pallid, inexpressive (and thus well-named) Gray (Baldwin) – is pure Ben Affleck, which makes sense. But why on earth has Aki’s boffin mentor Dr Sid (gleefully voiced by Sutherland) been given the head of veteran director John Schlesinger?

This isn’t the only aspect of the movie that falls into the ‘answers on a postcard’ category. The explanation we’re given of the aliens’ history, powers and incorporeal composition makes very little sense at all, and the last 20 minutes pretty much demands you give up all hope of following what’s going on (“Earth Gaia?! Alien Gaia?!” splutters Woods) and instead surrender to the glorious, pyrotechnic nebulousness of it all. If you’re after a multi-dimensional-invasion-of-earth tale that actually holds water, the BBC’s dazzlingly rigorous 1997 mini-series Invasion: Earth will be much more your cup of tea.

Then again, there’s something unexpectedly delightful about Final Fantasy‘s po-faced but fundamentally goofy visions/delusions of grandeur, and the myriad alien species really are something to behold, especially the colossal translucent bedbuggy things that penetrate ‘Barrier City’ off Manhattan, a vast, glowing, larval Crystal Palace of the future. But in terms of sheer transcendent beauty nothing matches a moment very early on when a spaceship enters Earth’s atmosphere, gracefully elongating into a vaguely human, female form as it breasts the heat of re-entry.

For an article on Final Fantasy click here

12th August, 2001
(seen Aug-2-01, UGC Middlesbrough)
by Neil Young
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