[Screen It]

(2001) (voices of Ming-Na, Alec Baldwin) (PG-13)

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Action/Adventure: A small group of human survivors try to figure out how to eradicate ghostly alien beings that have decimated Earth and killed most everyone else.
Sometime in the future, strange alien beings called Phantoms have taken over the Earth, decimating the cities and killing most of the inhabitants by extracting their spirits. It's the observation of that latter fact that has led Doctor Sid (voice of DONALD SUTHERLAND), and his protégé, Doctor Aki Ross (voice of MING-NA) to come up with a unique but controversial way of trying to stop the aliens and thus reclaim Earth.

Believing all life forms to contain signature spirits that can be identified and contained, Sid and Ross have set out to collect eight organic specimens whose collective spirit forces should counteract those of the alien beings. Having collected six of those eight spirits, the two are racing against various aspects of time. For one, Aki is infected with the alien force and she's living on borrowed time, although her condition has given her the ability to dream about the aliens and their origins.

More crucial, however, is the fact that General Hein (voice of JAMES WOODS) - who believes their spirit theory to be nothing but nonsense - desperately wants to use the Zeus Cannon, a powerful, outer space laser, to defeat the aliens once and for all. However, he doesn't have full support of the remaining human council to unleash the dangerous force on the Earth below.

As Sid and Ross try to prove Hein wrong and save the Earth in a more peaceful fashion, they must not only contend with him and the small military force - led by Captain Gray Edwards (voice of ALEC BALDWIN) and consisting of Ryan (voice of VING RHAMES), Neil (voice of STEVE BUSCEMI) and Jane (voice of PERI GILPIN) - sent to accompany and watch them, but also the beings themselves that seem determined to suck the souls out of every human they encounter.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Although special effects - like most everything else in the movie business - have come a long way since Edison first unleashed the Kinetoscope, they've mostly been used - up until now - as a way to complement a story or allow the filmmaker to show something that didn't exist or would otherwise be too difficult, expensive or dangerous to implement in real life.

Thus, for nearly as long as there have been movies, moviegoers have witnessed the work of model makers, puppeteers, matte painters, computer artists and the like, some of which they've noticed (such as King Kong, Superman flying or the spaceships and such of "Star Wars") and much of which they haven't (particularly in relation to backgrounds of shots, etc.).

Whatever the mode and/or means of visual trickery, almost all such movies - save for the entirely hand drawn or computer-animated films - have featured real-life performers somehow interacting with such effects. Until Spielberg created a near perfect match in "Jurassic Park," however, the meshing of the real and the faked wasn't always seamless, with actors and actresses often appearing superimposed on the effects or vice-versa and/or seemingly not looking directly at whatever the special effects artists dreamed up.

In "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within," the filmmakers have come up with a solution to that dilemma as they've replaced the real performers with computer-generated ones who thus fit in perfectly with their surroundings. While efforts such as "Shrek" and the "Toy Story" films have included computer-generated humans among their various visual treats, none have attempted to make them seem real or near photo-realistic to viewers.

While this picture probably won't yet put an interesting spin on the near always contentious Screen Actors Guild negotiations and contracts, it's easily the most impressive and somewhat eerie bit of eye candy to hit the silver screen in some time.

Although few, if any, are likely to confuse these faux performers for real people, there are times when you're likely either to lapse momentarily into acceptance that they are or at least marvel over how these creations look and move pretty much like the real thing.

With each character reportedly being completed at different stages and times during the film's multi-year production, however, some look far more realistic than the others. The oldest looking one, Dr. Sid, is the most realistic, but the female protagonist's flowing hair is something to behold in and upon itself (which shouldn't come as a surprise since twenty percent of the production time went into creating it). Accordingly, the film - which is based on the popular video game that I've never seen and thus can't compare to this cinematic adaptation - is nearly worth seeing simply to admire the terrific visuals.

The questions that remain to be asked and answered, however, are whether all of that work benefits the film or is simply a "we did it first" gimmick; if real-life performers could have been used without any discernible difference in the finished product; and finally whether the film is any good or not.

Tackling the first two queries, the computer characters aren't really much more than special effects for special effects' sakes. Sure, the filmmakers probably saved money by not showing the likes of Alec Baldwin ("Pearl Harbor," "State and Main"), Ming-Na ("The Joy Luck Club," the lead voice in "Mulan"), Ving Rhames ("Baby Boy," "Pulp Fiction") Donald Sutherland ("Space Cowboys," "Outbreak"), James Woods ("Scary Movie 2," "Contact"), Steve Buscemi ("Armageddon," "Reservoir Dogs") and Peri Gilpin ("Spring Forward," TV's "Frasier") - who voice the various characters - and the producers didn't have to worry about temperamental stars, high salaries, illness or insuring the participants.

So, in that regard, they probably made the film's production a tad easier. Yet, beyond a few moments such as the always hard to re-create weightlessness of outer space, there's no other really good reason not to have used real performers. After all, it's not like the filmmakers or studios developed a James Bond or Indiana Jones performer who'd never age or ask for a pay raise (which raises the question of why they didn't give these "performers" names so that "Johnny Strong" could appear in other films and thus build a fan following).

All of which leads to the third question where the answer is that the film isn't much more than a mediocre, sci-fi yarn, a point that wouldn't have been affected regardless of whether real or computer-generated performers were present in the parts.

As directed by Hironobu Sakaguchi (who produced the original video game) and written by Al Reinert ("Apollo 13") and Jeff Vintar ("The Long Hello and Short Good-bye"), who work from the original story by Sakaguchi, the film starts off with a moderately interesting premise. Yet, it quickly sinks into mediocrity thanks to the listless efforts of those men that rob the film of the same amount of electricity that must have been required to power the characters.

Something of a combination of new age mysticism and elements lifted, borrowed or at least strongly inspired by both "Aliens" and "Starship Troopers," the film may have a few decent moments, but otherwise never kicks into high gear.

Part of that's because the phantom creatures are never as menacingly real or defined as those appearing in those other films, and thus come off as nothing more than neat computer graphics rather than appropriately terrifying creatures. It could also stem from the fact that Sakaguchi is no James Cameron or Paul Verhoeven, thus leaving the film feeling like a substandard copy of their works.

It doesn't help that after a while the whole spirit/soul snatching plot becomes far too convoluted for the film's own good (likely causing viewers to agree with a character in the film who doesn't get it either) or that the clichéd moments and hackneyed dialogue send it squarely into B-movie territory.

Unlike "Shrek" or the "Toy Story" films, the story is never engaging enough to make one completely forget they're watching synthetic beings. Perhaps it's because of that and/or the fact that they occasionally don't look as real at times after doing so for some/much of the film, but it's hard if not impossible to let the film and its story carrying you away and/or cause you to care about the characters.

As far as the vocal work is concerned, it's decent all around and some of the resultant characters - particularly the female protagonist - come off as intriguing and/or possess a somewhat creepy, alluring quality. That's even if it's a bit unsettling to hear the likes of Baldwin, Woods and Sutherland's voices coming out of near photo realistic people who don't look like them. The effect, coupled with the not always perfect lip movement, gives the picture something of a dubbed foreign film effect, perhaps subconsciously adding to that B-movie aura.

Overall, it's too bad that it feels as if a computer also wrote and directed the film. While nothing short of fascinating and mesmerizing from a purely visual sense, the picture fails to impress anywhere near as much on an old-fashioned, storytelling level. More of an exercise in computer horsepower than in using such effects to enhance the storytelling, the film turns out to be not much more than a visually impressive novelty that will be noted in the cinema history books for being the first of its kind. Accordingly, "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" rates as just a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed July 9, 2001 / Posted July 11, 2001

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