a small confession. i've never played any of the popular role-playing fantasy games or computer games. No Dungeons And Dragons, no Tomb Raider, no Myst, no Final Fantasy. I've never quite understood the point of them, but that isn't a put-down. I know people who don't get the point of playing cards.
It may put me at a disadvantage when it comes to movies like Final Fantasy and Tomb Raider, but my innocence also gives me a bit of distance. I'll never be able to say, "Tomb Raider sucks because Angelina Jolie's breasts aren't big enough." On the other hand, I feel no qualms about saying, "Tomb Raider is short on coherent narrative and lacks something in the characterization department."
Final Fantasy is based on a popular game now in its 10th edition, and the film was directed by Hironobu Sakaguchi, who has producer credit on most of the games, so I'll assume that the movie is close to them in spirit. Where Final Fantasy differs from other game-based movies -- Street Fighter, Tomb Raider, Super Mario Brothers -- is that the entire film is computer-generated. There is no reality in this story of human soldiers and scientists doing battle with alien "predators" who appear on Earth when a big meteor crashes somewhere in southern Russia.
I see all kinds of influences, including Aliens in particular: the strong central female figure is plopped down in the midst of a sexually integrated military unit. There's also a chunk of Princess Mononoke, especially in the climactic confrontation with the spirit of the meteor. And a huge mystico-ecological component makes the leading scientists seem more like charter members of the Japanese Green party.
Call me a cranky old bastard, but there's something irksome about computer-generated stuff. I like looking at "real" special effects. Part of the charge of Apocalypse Now, for example, is that we're looking at real helicopters, real boats, real rivers -- everything in the film actually exists and isn't just bits and bytes on a hard drive. I like a stronger component of reality in my fantasy.
Final Fantasy offers visual spectacle but also gives us the sound of Alec Baldwin, Donald Sutherland, Ming-Na and James Woods spitting out dialogue that would embarrass Michael Paré in a straight-to-home-vid thriller. It may be possible to create any kind of world using computer animation, but they haven't figured out how to use a computer to generate a convincing story or emotionally involving characters.
FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN directed by Hironobu Sakaguchi and Motonori Sakakibara, written by Sakaguchi, Al Reinert and Jeff Vintar, produced by Jun Aida, Sakaguchi, Chris Lee and Akio Sakai, with Ming-Na, Alec Baldwin, Donald Sutherland, James Woods, Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi and Peri Gilpin. 95 minutes. A Square Pictures production. A Sony Pictures release. Opens Friday (July 13). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 67. Rating: NN