. "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within"

In what is a demonstration of the state of the art in computer graphics, and the most elaborate use of that medium, we extend praise to the dedicated creators of this film. Their effort in 3 dimensional animation for a science fiction adventure yarn is a stunning achievement and advances the art. What it doesn't do is threaten real live actors' livelihoods.

This method of moviemaking is not likely to put a dent into the market for good, old fashioned live action films. In fact, in terms of what "Final Fantasy" gives us, it's likely to send us back to the theatre for our traditional fare. I say this having marvelled at the detailed photorealism. Anyone who sees it and harbors the illusion that it can replace filmmaking as we know it is drinking too much Red Bull. There's never a moment that you're not aware that you're watching a fabrication, visually and storywise.

Not that the technological achievement won't go over big for some audiences. The filmmakers are already talking about "casting" their "actress" in other movies, taking on other characters just as a real actress would. There's nothing like bringing some fantasy into the real world for the sake of entertainment.

For those unfamiliar with some of the techniques of animation, it might be interesting that the actors' voices are recorded performing the film and the frames of the film (cels) conformed to the sound track. So, much is dependent on which actors are cast for the animated roles. In this film, a terrific cast is assembled, beginning with Ming-Na as heroine Dr. Aki Ross, a lithe delicate creation with that famous 4,000 individually controlled strands of hair. Physically and through her manner, she put me more in mind of Leelee Sobieski.

Be that as it may, in the story, the earth was hit by a meteor, the remains of a destroyed planet, some 35 years previous from the 2065 of today. This released a freak show of glowing, transparent spirit creatures of great diversity and size that seem to have the singled-minded purpose of separating humans from their spirits. Though seemingly indestructible, and though they move through solid objects, it's a relief to see that they can be killed with laser weapons.

Dr. Aki Ross is a scientist who has become infected with a phantom seedling in her body (think virus) which threatens to destroy her (the "spirit within"). Working with Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland), who has worked out that there are eight waves, each contained in a different life force that, when combined, will neutralize the phantoms and their ill effects on mankind. In the meanwhile, humanity hides within cities protected against the phantom creatures by electronic barriers. Only the adventurous and motivated Dr. Aki Ross and her team, assisted by her handsome beau, Captain Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin), ventures outside to search for the life forms containing the spirit waves.

Doctors Ross and Sid appear before the council (think Senate subcommittee) to convince them that plans to fire the Zeus cannon into the Carpathian mountains where the meteor landed and nested, will not destroy them but rather enhance their powers by destroying Gaia, the spirit of the earth itself. The scientific pair convinces the panel to give them a little more time to find the waves, a poppycock notion to General Hein (James Wood in the kind of role he has patented), a stern military man who will not be denied the chance to fire his weapon, the most powerful armament in the arsenal. He is scornful of any other approach to the problem.

If this all sounds like the stuff comic strips are made of, it's because it is. You almost expect to hear a "Pow" now and then. You don't, but you do get a comic strip level of dialogue, like the General's line, "What have I done?!" The photorealistic rendering of the characters doesn't dispel the cartoonish style and quality, like the typically square-jaw of Captain Gray Edwards. Still, director/writer Hironobu Sakaguchi did well by providing a love story underlying Dr. Ross' quest for her spirits. He obviously understood that there needed to be an emotional content to the technologically fabricated atmosphere.

But such understanding was limited in other aspects of the film. The mentality of the target audience is suggested by the design of the monster spirits. In any ecosystem an animal develops according to his needs. If it needs to chew tough bark or meat in its natural surroundings, then it develops rows of sharp dentures. But, here we have a hodgepodge of animal forms designed with no organic basis to suggest some kind of evolution -- merely out of a desire to pile on nightmareish threats, as in a comic strip. The designers would have made a greater impact on the audience had they struggled for more conceptual creativity in this central aspect of the drama.

So, what we have is a product that attempts to provide the ultimate in realistic rendering while it constantly reminds us of its cartoon basis. Despite that, we're still amazed by several technical aspects that can only be thought of as achievements. While computer drawings of great detail have become standard, the lighting of characters and sets here is outstanding. The animators get a strong pat on the back for their blatant artistry in so creatively providing the all important cinematographic element. It goes a very long way toward promoting the sense of reality and it's worthy of consideration for a nomination in that category!

Comparing it to "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" a recent high-action digitally supported video game adventure movie, you can see how much more is achieved when you're in the company of a real beating heart. Dr. Aki Ross is great in her digital perfection, but my time is better spent with the likes of Angelina Jolie. And, in terms of cartoon characters, I was more emotionally attached to Simba in Lion King than I was to the slender human-like heroine of this saga.

But, then, it's really not a matter of either/or. Fans of adventure, CGI, comic strips, and sci-fi should definitely not miss "Final Fantasy" which, despite its difficulty making its costs back, is not going to be so final.

Estimated cost: $115,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $33,000,000.

Rated P, for Phantastic.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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