"Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within"

An eerily human new generation of computer-generated actors populates this earnest sci-fi fantasy.

Published July 13, 2001 7:10PM (EDT)

Computer-generated characters aren't like you and me. Their jawlines are stronger, their hair is silkier. They look really great in even the most form-fitting jumpsuits. And they have a higher tolerance for increasingly circuitous and hard-to-follow plot developments.

But you get the feeling they'd be tremendous bores at a dinner party. At least, that seems to be true of the characters in "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within," an overly dignified computer-animated futuristic adventure starring a cast of allegedly lifelike actors who face peril at the tentacles of a bunch of translucent, jellyfish-like nasties. Interwoven throughout, there's a grand theme about the inner life of the Earth and how it regenerates and nourishes itself with the spirits of all living creatures who have died.

Or something like that. It's 2065 and the last remaining inhabitants of Earth are fighting a brutal war with the aforementioned phantom creatures, who crashed to the planet years before on a renegade meteor. They're wraithlike critters who come in many forms: Some of them look a little like undulating Chinese dragons or sea monsters; others resemble see-through metal praying mantises; others are simply little ghosty-slimy buggers that you barely catch out of the corner of your eye.

These phantoms kill humans, supposedly in a ruthless battle for world domination. A slim, trim, cyberbrunet and woman of science named Aki Ross (Ming-Na, who also provided the voice of the title character in "Mulan"), takes an active interest in finding out what makes them tick, in the hopes that they can be stopped and the Earth can be saved: To that end, she sets out to find the Eight Spirits, a group of super-duper thingamabobs that, collectively, will have the power to disarm the phantom menaces.

Actually, these spirit thingies are pretty humdrum: The sixth, for example, looks something like a regular old houseplant. But in her quest for these essential spirits, Aki reconnects with an old beau, hunky Ben Affleck look-alike Captain Gray (Alec Baldwin); the two haven't been in touch in a while, and a rift has opened between them -- but you can bet it's going to start closing up pretty quick.

Gray and the team of soldiers under his command (Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi and Peri Gilpin, of "Frasier," provide their voices) are assigned to protect Aki on her mission. They also find themselves at odds with a cranky general (James Woods), who has a vested interest in seeing that the phantom critters get blasted with a highly dangerous weapon called the Zeus Cannon, whose use is opposed by gentle tree-hugger Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland), who is also Aki's mentor.

Well, it kind of makes sense as you're watching it. Or at least, it makes as much sense as it has to. "Final Fantasy," an offshoot of a popular computer game, is really all about inducing visual awe. And for the first few minutes, it does.

But after you're done marveling at the characters' semirealistic way of moving and the freckles and minor imperfections that dot their skin (Dr. Sid boasts a prodigious number of liver spots -- get that guy some Porcelana!), it's all too easy to get hung up on the things that make them seem clumsy and awkward. When they speak -- the characters get some primo "Pearl Harbor"-style dialogue along the lines of "There is a war going on. No one is young anymore" -- their mouths just can't wrap themselves around the words. They look at each other and their gazes don't quite meet -- there's something a little blank, even slightly cross-eyed, about them. Their movements are generally smooth, but there's also something creepily artificial about them: They're a little like an übermodern cross between traditional Japanimation and the old Thunderbirds puppets -- kind of close to real, but ultimately just high-tech marionettes.

"Final Fantasy" isn't quite as sterile as you'd expect it to be: Its writers, Hironobu Sakaguchi (who is also its director) and Al Reinert, are hyperaware of the irony that these human facsimiles have devoted every pixel of their beings to preserving life as we know it, and they ride it like a bucking bronco to the movie's finish. Even so, "Final Fantasy" is hardly all life-affirming squidginess: You see lots of alien phantoms getting blown to smithereens by high-tech firepower, and once in a while it's even marginally exciting.

But the most engaging moment of "Final Fantasy" comes when the two main characters kiss. You have to wait for it -- director Sakaguchi must have known we'd all want to know, "How will these weird-looking, linguistically challenged lips look mashed up against each other?"

The answer is, surprisingly good -- there's actually some decent simulated muscle tone there. Then again, there's something infinitely depressing about marveling at the sight of 3-D lovebirds swapping spit -- even if you've had a date within the past three years, it somehow makes you feel as if you haven't.

What's more, as screen busses go, I'd put this one at least 20 notches below those wet, smacking lipstick kisses that wascally wabbit and occasional tranny Bugs Bunny used to plant on Elmer Fudd now and then. Now those were kisses.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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