Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)


By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

It's coming down, man

Aki Ross has 60,000 hairs on her head. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. As the star attraction in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, the photo-real, computer-rendered Aki (voiced by Ming-Na) is on screen often, and because she does not wear a helmet (unlike many of her comrades as they go traipsing about the surfaces of other planets and such), you get to see her hair a lot. And it does seem to move, in a disconcertingly strand-by-strand-ish sort of way. It’s almost eerie. Her face has a few clearly sketched-on freckles, her eyes sometimes look crossed, and her skin occasionally has a plasticky sheen. But the hair. It always looks unrealistically perfectly clean and perfectly coiffed, of course, and the precisely right number of strands fall from behind her ear into her face, on cue, and yet, it has a combined density and lightness that is pretty cool.

This achievement, this construction of CGI hair that even begins to approximate hair you might see in the real world, is what makes director Hironobu Sakaguchi’s film so special, and apparently, threatening to some flesh-and-blood actors. Tom Hanks tells the New York Times (on the paper’s front page!), “I am very troubled by it. But it’s coming down, man. It’s going to happen. And I’m not sure what actors can do about it” (8 July 01). (Now, what would he even imagine “doing” about it? Threaten to strike?) The brilliant development of Aki’s hair is inevitably ongoing, meaning, 6 months from now, her impressive hair will be old hat, and new and improved technologies will make a more perfect image of hair the norm. And this development comes with a few projected scenarios. All of them have to do with money.

One, digital actors will replace real ones (what constitutes “real” is a whole other question, of course). Digital actors won’t need vacations, trailers, café lattes, stunt people, cover-up stories, salaries. Digital actors will do what they’re told, when they’re told it. They can appear in every imaginable scenario—from alien planets to ancient Rome—and they need never look corny or out of step with the tigers they’re wrestling. Perhaps best of all, they’ll just go away when their welcome has worn out. Two, digital technology allows directors (or worse, studio-types) to manipulate performances by flesh-and-blood actors, even real people. The use of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lou Gehrig as spokesmen for a crassly commercial communications company, recently had naysayers up in arms about changing the context for great speeches and sentiments. And three, real actors will have to perform with digital ones, and if you think blue screen monsters are hard to react to, imagine having a romantic dinner with a CGI date. Andrew Niccol’s Simone (2002) deals plainly with the economics of this situation: when movie producer Al Pacino replaces a troublesome real person with a digital actress, he then must feign she’s real for promotional purposes. Such pretense, however, is business as usual in Hollywood, so it’s hard to worry too much about it.

But back to Aki’s hair. This too, is about money, but it’s also about imagination, which is, supposedly, the movies’ stock in trade. How “real” she looks is only a minimally interesting point (how “real” does Julia Roberts look? and hey, didn’t Spielberg just spend upmty-ump amounts of money making Jude Law look not “real”?). How far you will travel with Aki, imaginatively, that’s a more potent point. For Final Fantasy, imagination is exactly where the rub comes. Honolulu-based Square Productions, which made the movie put a lot of money ($115 million) and creative juice into Aki, but still, she’s constrained by a very regular, not so imaginative narrative.

Partly, this is because she’s the child of an RPG. Completed over some four years, by some 200 animators working overtime at a studio that looks out on breaking waves, Final Fantasy is derived from Sakaguchi’s legendary role-playing game (now in its ninth version), and its script (by Al Reinert and Jeff Vintar) duly sets up a very video-gamey storyline: a quest with obstacles, a motley crew of sidekicks, a set of monsters to be grappled with, and some complicated new-agey “science” that needs to be explained occasionally (and tediously—the action slow-down brought on by these expositions, in addition to the sometimes scary monsters, make Final Fantasy not-Shrek, that is, not appealing to everyone and their 10-year-old sister, but then, not everyone wants to be Shrek).

The storyline, briefly, is this: earth has apparently been invaded by phantoms (huge, contorting, beautifully creepy and translucent dragon-like thingies, some looking like H. R. Giger’s Aliens, others like Frank Herbert’s sandworms, still others like the dog-men army in The Mummy Returns). Aki (an environmentalist by inclination and scientist by training) and her aging mentor Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) are looking for a way to stop the phantoms from killing everyone by ingeniously alarming means: though airy and see-through, the phantoms also appear ot have mass, and so they come up real close, pass through you, and suck your own life spirit out of you. Because phantoms are orangeish and human spirits are blueish, the collision and then weird merging/sucking process is colorful and visible (and the most obviously old-school cartoonish scenes in the film, not necessarily a bad thing). Sid has come up with a “wave theory,” too elaborate to explain fully, but it means he’s looking for (the titular) “spirits” of once-living earth things, who might then be lined up as a counter-force against the phantoms, a force called “Gaia.” Sid and Aki have captured six spirits but need two more. I’m not sure why this is the magic number, but I confess, I’ve never played the video game.

Aki, you find out early, has a personal stake in figuring all this out: she has a little creepy-crawly phantom living inside her chest, and so, has a particular Borg-like empathy with the entire race, manifested in dreams she has whenever her head hits the pillow. These dreams—visions, really—land her on a desolate planet where she sees some warlike conflagration involving armies of pre-phantomized phantoms (that is, they are “solid” and running on the ground, not ghostly and floating). Aki must decipher the meaning of these dreams, get this entity out of her chest, find the last two spirits, and save the world. This saving the world notion is, of course, what makes Aki a hip girl video game hero. Like Lara Croft, she is agile, lithe, pretty, and sturdy, not to mention intelligent and fun to manipulate. The fact that she comes to the movies as a CGI concoction rather than, say, Ming-Na the flesh-and-blood actor, makes Aki a next step in video-game-into-movieness, but she’s still stuck with a clumsily hybrid, very Lara-like story, part hackneyed-military-vs-humanisty-humans (cf. Star Trek, Star Wars, etc.) and part gonzo-philosophical-abstractions. The latter are the most intriguing, intellectually and emotionally, but they also tend to get lost in the grand-scale images of planets exploding and space ships zooming about. These images, as in much anime, seem to be here because they can be. They’re functions of what the technology allows, more than they are functions of moral, emotional, or even political dilemmas.

Aki and Sid’s major human opponent is the ominously named General Hein (James Woods), a complex, fretful, and more nuanced fellow than Darth Vader might have ever imagined being, with access to something they call a Zeus Cannon (they’re into Greek mythology), very destructive. Aki and Sid’s military helpers are led by Aki’s stoic boyfriend, Captain Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin), and include a wise-ass pilot (Steve Buscemi), a Vasquez-from-Aliens-like gunner named Jane Proudfoot (Peri Gilpin), and a noble black guy (Ving Rhames), about whom I’ll just say, he does what you expect him to do. Aki’s crew against Hein: it’s not especially hard to guess who it turns out, but when the characters are on screen, even when their mouths don’t exactly match their words, Final Fantasy almost gets out from under its primary burden (being the first photo-realistic computer-generated film), to turn into an entertaining and even provocative sf movie.

Perhaps ironically, the most arresting aspect of this movie (the entertaining and even provocative sf one) lies in its questions about identity. Specifically, Aki’s relationship with the phantom inside her recalls the relationship that Ripley has with the Aliens (or between John Carpenter’s Thing, the various Body Snatchers, and all of their human victims), a relationship that’s conspicuously parasitical and lethal, but also subtly thematic, in its representations of the commercial imperatives that drive the films and film franchises, but more broadly, the theoretical, material, and ethical imperatives that drive anyone’s sense of self. That the Alien must come to sentience inside a human body, that the Thing must become its human target—these creatures pose conceptual threats to humans’s self-understandings. The invasion is not from without, per se, but from, and, as Ripley noted so insightfully in Alien 3, “It’s a metaphor.” And when Final Fantasy pauses to engage this question, most notably in Aki’s dreams, it’s onto something. Most of the time, however, it’s more focused on wowing you with its dazzling CGI-ness, much less interesting. Unsurprisingly, this cool new technology has trouble with intimacy.

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