It's 2065. Earth is threatened by phantom-styled aliens unleashed by a giant meteor. As humanity holes up in barrier cities and scheming General Hein plans to destroy the aliens by annihilating the Earth, scientist Dr. Aki Ross, aided by a clutch of soldiers, struggles against the odds to neutralise the alien threat.
Heralded as the biggest advancement towards photo-realistic computer animation yet seen, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was at once a step forward into a brave new world and a step back into stale science fiction hokum. If the quality of the writing had matched the artistry of the animation it would border on masterpiece. As it is, the result which hardly set the box office on fire on its US opening resembles a beautifully wrought computer game, minus the interaction.
The film gets off to a powerful, wordless start as Aki Ross is pursued by the military through a fantastically realised, derelict, drizzly New York. From here on in, there are big, set-piece moments to razzle the retina: Aki caught in the middle of an alien stampede; phantoms killing off soldiers by reaching and pulling out souls from bodies.
Eschewing the gaudy game patina, the movie has an impressively detailed, muted visual sheen that is much more Ridley Scott than John Lasseter. But it is in its minutiae that Final Fantasy really impresses. Moments that would pass by unnoticed in a live-action flick become increasingly impressive as you witness a medium expanding its boundaries before your very eyes: Aki running her fingers through her hair (follicles previously a sticking point for CGI); the blemishes on her wan skin; the subtleties of torchlight; the 'handheld' quality of the 'camerawork'. If the photo-realistic claim is extravagant, there are flashes when Final Fantasy completely blurs the distinction between CGI and live action.
But while the 'wow' factor remains consistently high there is a great set-piece as the heroes shoot their way past the phantom menace the level of interest begins to dissipate as the one-dimensional characters, mystical mumbo-jumbo and hokey plotting simply fail to take hold. If she is stunningly realised visually, Aki lacks shading in the character stakes, her love story with Affleck-alike Gray Edwards failing to spark.
Moreover, the soldiers who assist Aki are straight out of the James Cameron Academy For Disgruntled Grunts Buscemi's techie geek, Rhames' hard-as-nails-sarge while James Woods (General Hein) hams it up mightily through gigabytes of beautifully rendered, pixellated scenery. You might have seen this story time and again in a Saturday morning cartoon but, in superseding the state of the art,Final Fantasy ensures it's worth another look.
It may be a hodge-podge of riffs from other sci-fi movies Starship Troopers, Dune, Star Wars and Aliens are all plundered peopled by flat characters and page one plotting, but the compensations are great: some strong action sequences, a consistent tre