Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
And they just keep rolling in... the reaction seems to be split fiercely on this one. I had a chance to go last night, but I'm currently fighting a bout of Black Lung, and at my age, I shouldn't risk it just for a movie. Instead, I stayed home and hooked up my Nyquil IV. Leave to to the lovely Miss DuPont to brave the screening and come back with the truth... or at least, her version of it.
"So much cinematic action, whether photographed or animated, is now indebted to computers that the old enmity [between animation and live-action] no longer seems to apply."
-- Anthony Lane, writing in The New Yorker [July 9] about "Cats and Dogs"
I. INTRODUCTION and SINCERE PRAISE, followed by the word 'BUT'
Okay. So I just walked out of "Final Fantasy: The Sprits Within," then decided to peruse the online community's limited pre-release reviews of the film, which ranges from gushing (and occasionally PR-sounding) to mixed -- usually some comment along the lines of "AMAZING VISUALS!!!!" followed by a disclamatory "The plot was kind of incomprehensible and the characters were stiff and the dialogue was a bit hackneyed, but ... AMAZING AWESOME BETAMAX VISUALS!!!!"
So. Let me start by praising without irony the efforts of "Final Fantasy"'s design and animation team. Ladies; gentlemen; pour yourselves a drink. While your characters don't achieve that ever-elusive "perfect photorealism" (unless your definition of "perfect photorealism" includes stiff, too-skinny people who look like they've had extremely skillful, skin-smoothing burn-victim reconstructive surgeries), y'all crafted a consistent, frequently haunting aesthetic. Many little moments -- an eye blinking, characters kissing -- are positively eerie to look at, a glimpse into an alternate, freakishly tactile reality where everyone has Barbie-and-Ken proportions. And of course there are your near-quantum, obsessive advances in matters of skin detail and blowing hair -- not to mention some ginchy dream sequences with funky alien design. My highest praise for you technicians and artists may be that, as I was walking home from the preview screening, I found myself looking at everyday surfaces with a combination of nausea and fatigue, as if my world were no longer real and could be appraised as a series of texture maps. Your work is THAT skillful.
Putting it still another way: The "Final Fantasy" animation team is so good that it's finally opened the world of computer animation to a troubling rhetorical discussion -- a discussion about whether spending millions of dollars to create a photorealistic animal, mineral or vegetable is worth the trouble when you could just go pick up a camera and shoot a REAL rock, mediocre actor or plant and have it look exactly the same -- for 1/100th the cost. After all, wasn't this in some ways the inevitable end result of all this CG photorealism R&D? To create something utterly mundane using the most expensive rendering tools available? (It's a discussion best left to wiser technical philosophers than I, or maybe Slashdot, or maybe even, God help us, AICN Talk Back.)
Putting it another way, as I wrote in my long-ago review of "Titan AE": "... compared to ["Final Fantasy" director Hironobu Sakaguchi] and his crackerjack team of animators and technicians, those of us in the AICN Peanut Gallery are a bunch of swooning milkmaids. Total pussies. Really."
And this is important:
And I disclaim by writing that mine may be the minority opinion:
Take away the animation, and "Final Fantasy" is a bloody TERRIBLE movie. I mean, like, weak-episode-of-"Voyager" bad -- a deadly-dull collection of quest-movie/sci-fi cliches mixed in with New Age namby-pamby and crap dialogue, then whipped together with so much machine fetishism and pseudotechnobabble that none of it makes any sense.
Here. I'll try to prove it. There will be spoilers.
II. THE STORY ...
... will sound familiar to anyone who's watched a lot of Japanese animation, only "Appleseed" this isn't: A meteor laced with semi-invisible "Phantom" aliens crashed on Earth a few decades ago. These ghostly, apparently quite stupid and voiceless baddies (who we're told again and again are invisible, even though we more or less see them clearly for the duration of the film, as if CGI artists couldn't bear to NOT show you something) can kill anyone by merely passing through them.
Despite being ghosts, however, the Phantoms can still be killed by lasers -- or, I'm sorry, guns powered by "bioetheric energy packs" -- and so we get lots of stilted, "Aliens"-esque firefights featuring the "Deep Eyes" commandos, led by Gray (voiced by Alec Baldwin). So we have the Deep Eyes -- structured like the "Aliens" commando team, right down to a tough girl clearly modeled on Vasquez -- fighting invisible ghosts you can nevertheless see and kill with lasers: Are you starting to get an idea of the inconsistent set of internal scientific laws at play here, the way established rules are thrown out the window for the sake of narrative convenience?
Anyway. The Phantoms have driven humanity into a perfectly lovely dystopian glowing dome on Manhattan Island. One camp of survivors, led by the unfortunately named General Hein (voiced by James Woods) wants to blast the aliens using a big orbiting space cannon. (A big orbiting BIOETHERIC space cannon?) Another camp, led by the Sandra Bullock-looking Aki (Ming Na) and Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland), thinks General Hein's perfectly reasonable plan will kill the Earth's living spirit -- yes, that's right, Gaia herself -- and so the Earth-worshipping good guys have a convoluted counter-plan that involves finding the "eight spirits" and creating a "waveform" that will, for some reason, cancel out the Phantoms.
During a glowing-hologram board meeting right out of "Return of the Jedi," when General Hein said something along the lines of, "With all due respect, the idea of gathering touchy-feely plants and animals to fight the Phantoms is nonsense!" I very nearly burst into applause. (Woods' character, you'll find, makes a lot of sense -- until he arbitrarily becomes "evil" for the sake of plot convenience about midway through the film.)
III. THE CENTRAL PROBLEM(S)
The above is a rather over-elaborate -- though not unworkable -- quest plot frame. Still, it suffers from a few major conceptual problems. For one thing, the ultimate confrontation is not between man and alien, but rather between the life forces for entire planets --- a stately sort of glowing conflict between red and blue masses of energy that looks like nothing so much as the climactic glowing-entity battle in Jeff Goldblum/Alicia Silverstone fantasy thriller "Hideaway."
(BTW, for my money, "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" should have demonstrated once and for all that conflicts involving giant, inarticulate masses of energy are ultimately the least interesting conflicts in cinema. But maybe that's just me.)
Also, the film suffers from that most critical of flaws in science-fiction/fantasy: the arbitrary creation of rules and gifting of knowledge to characters almost at whim. I'll offer but two examples:
(1) Tiny bioetheric lasers kill Phantoms; but a gargantuan orbital bioetheric laser, at a critical moment, is suddenly found to make a Lovecraftian alien "game-level boss" stronger. Why? No explanation is given.
(2) One character suddenly knows he can channel bioetheric waveforms through another character's chestplate at a critical moment? Why? No explanation is given. It's the New Age equivalent of "Voyager"'s "If I can only re-route the whozit to the thingamajig, then we can create a deus ex machina!" conversation, and it is deeply, deeply insulting.
But "Final Fantasy" isn't even really ABOUT these glowing forces or arbitrary rules. As near as I could tell, "Final Fantasy" is about machinery and holographic computer displays -- things that already looked pretty good in PRE-"photorealistic" CG anyway, but admittedly look pretty swell here. Still: Director Hironobu Sakaguchi will let no opening door or landing strut or computer readout pass by his camera without stopping to linger on it lovingly in an insert shot; and characters spend a deathly amount of time sitting at terminals, saying things like the following:
IV. ILLUSTRATIVE LINES OF DIALOGUE FROM 'FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN'
These are, sadly, quite evocative of almost 50 percent of the words spoken in this movie:
(1) "They're moving with the bioetheric energy flow!"
(2) "We can use the shield to project the wave!"
(3) "With the hope of new life has Gaia changed the Phantom within."
(4) GRAY: "I see you're giving me the silent treatment." AKI: "I'm scanning the city for the Seventh Spirit."
(5) DR. SID, CONFRONTED WITH RISING MAGIC ENERGY PARTICLES: "Awww... It's WARM." [The audience actually guffawed at this one -- arguably because it sounded like Sutherland was enjoying a dip in some heated bouillabaisse as he said it.]
V. THAT SAID
The audience also applauded at the end of the preview screening, and for a sustained period, so maybe I'm wrong. The movie is indeed stunning to behold, even if most of the vehicle and costume designs ARE lifted from James Cameron. And a dream-sequence between warring, armored alien armies sort of looks like what you might imagine was in Heinlein mind's eye. Plus, the voice talent (particularly Sutherland and Steve Buscemi) generally acquit themselves nicely while saying some pretty drab words.
If you're into beautifully rendered technofetishism, Gaism, and "Starship Troopers" without bloodshed, do I have a movie for you. I'm sorry, but future advances in CG technology will render "Final Fantasy" far less of a spectacle and far more of a pile of poo. If it weren't neat-looking in a new way, you'd most likely hate it.
VII. A FUN LINK
This was July 10's Cruel Site of the Day: a brilliant mini-essay by Gregory P. Dorr proving once and for all that Leatherface is a more moral being than Forrest Gump: