- The Washington Times - Friday, July 13, 2001

"Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" expires on an inconclusive note after 104 tedious minutes of science-fiction scaremongering and myth-trifling. Curiously, the screenwriters of "Final Fantasy" pose a self-incriminating question about their own superficially tormented plot, which pits embattled earthlings against voracious and tendrilly aliens in 2065: "What if it's all mumbo jumbo?"
What if, indeed. You get a fiasco of this magnitude, chaps. Not to mention a script that teems with insecure mutterings, virtually inviting the audience to bail out: "What are they trying to tell us?" "My dreams hold the key, but will I be in time to save the Earth?"
The dreamer and key holder is the heroine, Aki Ross, dubbed by Ming-Na of TV's "E.R." In case you haven't heard, "Final Fantasy" has several familiar voices on the soundtrack — Alec Baldwin, Donald Sutherland, Ving Rhames, James Woods, even Jean Simmons for a fleeting exchange — but the characters are illustrated by computer images that hanker after optimum photo-realism. The hankering leaves plenty to be desired, notably the advantages of human flesh and facial expressiveness.
The "Fantasy" animators seem to have made remarkable advances at simulating pores and beard stubble and other minor details, but their figures remain plasticine in disillusioning, even alienating, ways. Lips are a conspicuous problem, especially when speech is supposed to be synchronized with voices. There's also something creepy about the sight of computer-generated lip images approaching each other for purposes of the kiss. Having seen this stylization on the digital frontier, I'd much prefer to return to the puppet figures Gerry Anderson and his crew invented for the old "Thunderbirds" series in the 1960s. They left more room for imaginative play than fragile Aki and her bloodless counterparts.
"Final Fantasy" derives from a lucrative video game. The designer, Hironobu Sakaguchi, commanded enough clout to be hired as the director. Its nominal menaces are called Phantoms. Often dimly discernible and transparent specters, they reportedly infested Earth about a generation earlier, consuming bodies and souls with terrifying consequences.
Despite the plausibly loathsome aspects of the Phantoms, Aki and her mentor, Dr. Sid (dubbed by Mr. Sutherland) believe a peaceful solution is within their grasp. All they need is to collect eight spirit forms and devise a wave-pattern antidote to Phantom depredations. If I catch the drift correctly, the Phantoms are about as harmless as Casper the Friendly Ghost once you appreciate their insecurities and grievous heritage of intergalactic exile. Humans, alas, failed to intuit the sensitive side, hidden well inside ferocious exteriors while the Phantoms devour victims.
Lovable crackpot that he is, Dr. Sid also is sold on Gaia worship. One suspects that Aki is being groomed as the goddess reincarnation likely to restore peace and prosperity to an Earth where humans and Phantoms can coexist. She'll have to be a comfort in some other movie, because nothing decisive gets settled before "Final Fantasy" runs out of both combative and philosophical gas.

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