Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:45 - Released 7/11/01

In the recent explosion of digital effects technology in films, there has been a predictable sacrifice of script substance in favor of high-tech computer graphics. I'm happy to say that Hironobu Sakaguchi's futuristic thriller Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is the exception to that rule. Despite the fact that Final Fantasy features the most incredibly realistic and detailed animation presently available, its story is intense and intelligent, the characters uniformly believable (featuring the voices of a talented, star-studded cast), and its action sequences are gripping without being over the top. Although the characters are so real-looking they nearly reach the long-sought holy grail of animation (the creation of characters indistinguishable from human actors), the otherworldly effects push the boundaries of fantasy and wonder.

The setting is Earth, specifically New York City, in the not too distant year of 2065. Although this date is well within reach of the current generation's life span, the Earth has become a devastated wasteland thanks to the invasion (30-some years ago) of an alien race of creatures known as "phantoms," which seem to be able to pass through solid matter at will and destroy any human with which they come in contact. Currently raging within the war against these creatures is a battle between two factions of the human population. The military, whose main spokesman is General Hein (voice of James Woods), is anxious to utilize its powerful Zeus space station (a sort of smaller version of the Death Star) to zap the phantom population to kingdom come. But the scientific community is not so sure this is the best tactic, since the energy from the beam may prove only to make the creatures stronger. Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) and his protegé, Dr. Aki Ross (E.R.'s Ming-Na), have been working on a possible solution to the phantom menace (sorry, couldn't resist), hoping to solve the problem by less violent means using an energy field created by the collected spirits of living creatures to disarm the phantoms. On the fence in this debate is Capt. Grey Edwards (Alec Baldwin), who has romantic feelings for Aki, but answers to Gen. Hein. With their research almost completed, Drs. Sid and Ross must finish before Hein launches his attack.

Thank goodness there are producers out there with enough vision to realize that special effects are not all you need to make a good film. Writer/director/producer Sakaguchi, who created the popular Final Fantasy video game series in 1987, has had the good sense to enlist the aid of writers Jeff Vintar (Long Hello and Short Goodbye) and Al Reinert (Apollo 13) to craft a believable story with real characters we are able to care about, and also to hire actors capable of making their vocal characterizations worthy of those characters. Ming-Na, Sutherland, and Baldwin are all effective (this is a step up from Baldwin's recent vocal turn in Cats & Dogs), and the cast also includes actors like Steve Buscemi, Peri Gilpin, and Ving Rhames — not too shabby for this type of animated flick. The animation is breathtakingly real; this is not just motion capture, folks. Sakaguchi and his animators even take the risk of extreme close-ups which show eye detail, freckles, and the independent movements of individual hairs, and though there are some flaws — the characters' skin color is often pale and opaque — these are by far the most realistic looking animated humans I've ever seen. The story occasionally slows down to a dangerous pace, but overall, Final Fantasy is a delight, rising well above the standard animated action formula. ****½

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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