THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Back in May when I reviewed Shrek, I wrote that computer animation had "come a long way since Toy Story." I was impressed by that first CG feature back in 1995, but was even more blown away by Shrek's fanciful use of it. When I wrote that review, I didn't expect to be so dazzled again this summer. Yet dazzled is exactly what I feel having seen Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. This is the first computer-animated movie to really simulate human beings realistically.

The central character is Aki Ross (voice of Ming-Na). Along with her mentor Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland), Aki is trying to stop a race of aliens that is threatening to invade Earth. The planet's leaders, especially the megalomaniacal General Hein (James Woods), believe that the war will be won with weapons. Aki and Dr. Sid are proposing a "wave theory" - in other words, they can counteract the aliens' power by collecting and combining the spirit waves of eight other life forms. As the film opens, they have six and are on a mission to find the other two. Helping them is a renegade group led by Captain Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin), who also happens to be Aki's former lover. Hein is determined to go ahead with force, so Aki and her crew have to work fast to find the other waves.

Aki Ross - the heroine of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within - looks real, but she's not
The human characters in Final Fantasy are amazing to look at. They have wrinkles and imperfections. Aki's hair moves realistically. The physicality is more fluid than jerky. At times, I had to blink my eyes tightly to remind myself that the people I was looking at were not real. The planets and creatures encountered are more common to this form of animation, but here again, they look more real than in any other film so far.

Yes, there are also limitations. I'd say the characters look about 90% human, but that other 10% can be disorienting. Sometimes the mouths move slightly out of sync with the dialogue. Also, emotional nuances are lost. For instance, a scene in which Aki breaks down into tears doesn't work because computers can't convey the same level of emotion that a real actor can. (I don't think human thespians need to worry about losing their jobs to CG actors.)

On a side note, here's something else I found distracting. Gray Edwards looks to me like Ben Affleck. I kept expecting to hear Affleck's voice, but whenever he opened his mouth, I only heard Alec Baldwin.

A few minor quirks aside, I was amazed just looking at the characters in Final Fantasy. On that level alone, I think the movie is worth the price of a ticket. But I liked the story too. I found the idea of the "search for the spirits" to be quite elegant. Unlike most movies based on video games, this one is not focused on generating constant action scenes. There is a real philosophical angle to the picture that intrigued me. It uses the CG effects to make a movie that is challenging rather than simplistic. This is proof that the technology can support a movie with bigger ideas. There is a beautiful message here about the value of life in all its forms.

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within certainly ranks as one of the summer's more unusual films. It will probably appeal to a hard-core audience of sci-fi fans and video game aficionados. If so, what an unfortunate fate. This movie shouldn't be limited just to genre audiences. It deserves to be appreciated by anyone looking for smart, classy entertainment.

( 1/2 out of four)

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.
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