Video games have come a long way since the days of Pong and Asteroids, when slow-moving, black-and-white blips were considered the height of digital entertainment. Nowadays, they have complicated plots and graphics that make Atari games look as crude as cave paintings, and nearly as old.
"Final Fantasy," the Japanese game series that was introduced to North America in 1988, was one of the pioneers of this visually innovative, story-based gaming style, so it makes sense that it would eventually inspire a feature film. Set in 2065, "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" takes place on what is left of Earth after it is nearly destroyed by a horde of mysterious alien invaders. The surviving humans are struggling to reclaim the planet, but no one understands the aliens' nature or how to stop them. No one, that is, except Dr. Aki Ross (voiced by Ming-Na) and her mentor, Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland), who have figured out that spiritual energies can be harnessed to fight the creatures.
Of course, they run afoul of both government and military forces, who think the best way to deal with the aliens is to shoot bigger and badder guns at them, even though this never actually seems to work. Things are complicated further by Aki's romantic involvement with Capt. Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin), who is torn between trusting Aki's instincts and being loyal to his commanders.
Much has been made of this movie's computer-generated animation, with its emphasis on creating realistic human characters, and the hype is more than warranted. While they don't quite look like actual people, Aki and her "co-stars" are rendered with such precision, they're almost better than the real thing. The animators don't stop with the virtual people, either; every frame of "Final Fantasy" is loaded with depth and detail, making for a visual feast that blows even "Shrek" out of the water.
Surprisingly, the movie also has a coherent plot, which is probably a first for a video game adaptation. Director Hironobu Sakaguchi is the inventor and developer of the game series, but he understands that he can't simply transfer the PlayStation experience to the big screen. While it gets convoluted and more than a little weird at times, "Final Fantasy" moves at a brisk pace and has the internal logic necessary to make its wild sci-fi notions believable. That's quite an accomplishment for a genre that frequently makes Pac-Man look like great storytelling.
With all these elements in place, "Final Fantasy" could have achieved the groundbreaking brilliance to which it obviously aspires. If only the characters didn't open their mouths. Listening to the dialogue in this movie is like watching an anime film (or maybe a Godzilla movie) that has been translated into English very, very badly. The makers of "Final Fantasy" don't have that excuse, however, since the two credited screenwriters, Al Reinert and Jeff Vintar, are both American. It seems they forgot how to use their native language in a remotely intelligent fashion, which makes one wonder why they were even hired if the movie had originally been written in Japanese, at least the problems could have been blamed on poor translation. This is just shoddy writing, and it nearly ruins the film since every dramatic moment and bit of character development depends on it.
In fact, "Final Fantasy" is a classic example of why awesome special effects aren't enough to make a movie great, or even very good. If you don't have the interesting characters and sharp dialogue that a decent script provides, all you're left with are pretty pictures tacked onto a thin plot. That's fine for a video game, but it leaves a gaping hole in a movie that can't be filled with programming code.