[box cover]

Final Fantasy: Special Edition

Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment

Starring the voices of Ming-Na, Alec Baldwin,
James Woods, Donald Sutherland, Peri Gilpin,
Ving Rhames, and Steve Buscemi

Written by Hironobu Sakaguchi and Al Reinert
Directed by Hironobu Sakaguchi and Moto Sakakibara

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Review by Betsy Bozdech                    

Make no mistake about it: Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is a stunning movie. As a purely technological, visual achievement, it deserves every accolade critics can throw at it and more. Computer animated from start to finish, Final Fantasy boasts rich colors, incredibly detailed landscapes and settings, beautifully rendered creatures, and — the biggest "wow" of them all — the first near photo-realistic humans in an animated movie.

A Plot is Worth a Thousand Pictures

Unfortunately, most of director/creator Hironobu Sakaguchi's achievements are only skin deep. Unlike, say, Toy Story, which blended impressive-but-imperfect animation (the people in the first one were awfully crude) with wonderfully developed characters and a creative, clever story, Final Fantasy is so infatuated with looking good that the rest of the movie suffers. Heroine Aki Ross's hair may be a many-stranded miracle, but the plot is a complicated muddle of spirituality and alien-fighting, and many of the characters are cartoonish (no pun intended) stereotypes.

Instead of a straight good vs. evil sci-fi shoot-out, Final Fantasy's story takes a big leap into the touchy-feely world of spirits and bio-energy. Set in the year 2065, after otherworldly, soul-leeching Phantoms have turned the Earth into a desolate, treacherous wasteland, the video game-inspired film follows Dr. Aki Ross (Ming-Na) as she races against time to save the planet from final destruction at the hands of power-hungry General Hein (James Woods) and his Death Star-like Zeus Cannon. Aki is the protégéof radical Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland), who believes spirits, not weapons, will defeat humanity's alien enemies and prevent them from irreparably damaging the Earth's essence — Gaia, from which all life comes. He and Aki are searching for eight specific spirits to complete a bio-energy wave that will negate the Phantoms' own energy patterns and thus destroy them. Complicating matters is the fact that Aki needs to complete the wave to save herself, too; we soon learn that she is carrying a small Phantom inside her, protected from its destructive power only by the discoveries she and Sid have made so far. Aki's infection makes her susceptible to dreams about the Phantoms, dreams that gradually reveal the truth about their origin and make her even more determined to prevent Hein and the military from trying to take out the aliens their way.

And that's just the short version of the plot — the exposition offered by Aki, Sid, and other characters throughout the movie adds in a few more layers of New Age-y mumbo jumbo centering on Gaia and humans' connection to their home planet. It's all a little too complex and confused to follow, especially on a first viewing. Suffice it to say that Aki and Sid are right (surprise), but Hein is so sure that might makes right that he ends up sabotaging his own city to prove his point, with devastating results that only make Aki's mission more urgent.

Human is as Human Does

Of course, there wouldn't be much drama if Aki went on her quest alone, so enter her ex-flame Captain Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin) and his Deep Eye Squad, an elite group of Phantom-fighters who rescue Aki in crumbling Times Square and watch over her as she continues her search. Squad members Ryan (Ving Rhames), Jane (Peri Gilpin), and Neil (Steve Buscemi) offer most of the movie's comic relief, tossing out one-liners and snappy retorts a la Die Hard and Men in Black. All three get a chance to be noble, but none is truly developed as a character. Actually, the only one who is, is Aki herself, through her dreams and voice-overs, though even she remains somewhat enigmatic. Less subtle are Hein, who Woods plays as so completely over-the-top that there's never any question who the movie's villain is, and Gray. Looking more than a little bit like a pumped-up Ben Affleck, Baldwin's Gray is Final Fantasy's Han Solo-ish voice of reason and skepticism, but even he buys the Gaia theory in the end.

All of the characters are animated well, with particular attention paid to Aki (and her hair), of course, but despite the amazingly detailed, up-close reality of their features and facial expressions, you never forget that they are, indeed, animated creations. Certain gestures are halting, and even painstakingly painted flesh tones can still look cold and digitized. Dr. Sid has some particularly plastic-looking moments; his head is just too smooth to be real. But that doesn't detract from Final Fantasy's achievements in the slightest — SAG may not have to worry about digital actors replacing flesh-and-blood ones quite yet, but Sakaguchi's crew of animators and technicians have set the bar astoundingly high (for proof of that, forget the humans and check out the Phantoms — the undulating, transparent creatures may be lethal, but they're utterly gorgeous, too). Hopefully this isn't the group's final fantasy, but the first of many.

*          *          *

Disc One: The Movie and Then Some

Final Fantasy is one of those movies that's tailor-made for the digital realm of DVD. It's computer-rendered frames look fabulous on Columbia TriStar's two-disc special edition; the 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is as pristine as they come. The sound is up to the challenge, too — the Dolby Digital 5.1 track is clear and strong (other audio options include French 5.1, English 2.0, and English and French subtitles).

The first disc offers the movie itself, plus a few hefty extras: three commentaries, a storyboard-to-film section with optional commentary and factoids, several trailers (two for Final Fantasy, three for other Columbia films on DVD), and DVD-ROM features like the complete screenplay, a virtual tour of the Square Pictures studios, a screen saver, and Web links. The first two commentaries — one in Japanese (subtitles are available) with co-director Moto Sakakibara, sequence supervisor Hiroyuki Hayashida, sets and props lead artist Tatsuro Maruyama, and Phantom supervisor Takoo Noguchi; the other in English with animation director Andy Jones, editor Chris Capp, and staging director Tani Kunitake — are fairly technical in nature. The guys doing the talking discuss the animation techniques and tools they used, note challenging sequences and elements, and dissect aspects of various scenes. All in all they're a little dry (though it's hard not to smile when the four men in the first commentary laugh over inside jokes), but a refreshing change from the typical everyone-was-so-talented-and-great-to-work-with commentaries on other discs. The third track on this disc pairs the isolated score with sometimes-sparse comments from composer/songwriter Elliot Goldenthal; it's a little slow, but interesting if you're into the subject matter.

Disc Two: Supplemental Features Galore

Sticking with the "more is more" theory currently embraced by most studios when it comes to putting out DVDs (especially for movies, like this one, calculated to appeal to a computer-friendly, tech-savvy audience), the second disc is packed with plenty of extras. Here's a breakdown:

Plus, featurettes on creating the film's trailers (4:40), establishing how the characters would look (5:30), how the background matte art was created (6:00), what went into building the final composite shots (7:40), and another storyboard-to-film "blast." Last but not least, don't forget to punch up the small square box in the bottom right hand corner of the second menu screen — you'll find a silly, hilarious take on Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video featuring the Final Fantasy characters.

— Betsy Bozdech

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