If you want to see how close computers can come to replicating humans on screen -- and how far they still have to go -- take a look at "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within," which blurs the lines between live-action and animation, movies and computer games, and lyricism and tedium.
One of the film's first shots, aside from a futuristic planet landscape that suggests a discarded Yes album cover, is a closeup of a woman's green eye, and the image is more striking than you might imagine. Director Hironobu Sakaguchi, who also created the popular Final Fantasy computer game, and his crew of designers have given this eye the spark of life, with its convincingly liquid surface and the intricate detail of the lashes, lids and surrounding skin.
When the "camera" pulls back to reveal this young woman, Dr. Aki Ross (voiced by Chinese-American actress Ming-Na), who resembles a young Linda Fiorentino, you continue to be thrown by how lifelike she appears. Her movements are fluid, "realistic" you might say, and Sakaguchi's striking compositions add to the impression that you're watching an arty, live-action science-fiction film.
But after Dr. Ross is joined by several military personnel trying to shoo her away from an off-limits area -- another post-devastation version of Manhattan a la "A.I." -- the novelty begins to wear off. The male lead, Capt. Gray Edwards, is modeled on Ben Affleck (and voiced by Alec Baldwin) as if morphed with Gil Thorp; he's got a block head, Neanderthal brow and, incidentally, none of the actor's warmth. One of Capt. Edwards' underlings, Neil (voiced by Steve Buscemi), shares the same head shape and hairline, though Neil more closely resembles Jason Priestley.
So it goes as "Final Fantasy" conducts an unintentional seminar on the limits of hyper-realistic animation. The point of animation is for filmmakers to imagine worlds and characters that they cannot portray in live-action films. Sakaguchi does just that as he presents a vivid, dreamy vision of a phantom-haunted Earth in 2065. Some of the imagery, like the sparks of a flare slowly raining down on bleak ruins, reflects a true sense of artistry.
But then the humans aren't intended to be anything more than human -- and thus are drained of humanity. The most effective animated characters aren't those that are most realistic but most expressive, which helps explain why so few classic cartoon characters are people. (The ones that are, like Elmer Fudd, Fred Flintstone and Charlie Brown, don't really look like people.)
In part because current computer-animation technology is better at reproducing texture (cross-hatched patterns on skin, clustered strands of hair) than the complex interplay of facial muscles, the characters of "Final Fantasy" can't convincingly emote. Too often they resemble those unfortunate folks who have succumbed to one too many face lifts and now are almost immobile above their mouths.
Adding to the distancing effect is the film's obligatory use of recognizable celebrity voices, which creates a weird dissonance given the almost-actual faces with which they're matched. It's somehow easier to suspend disbelief as you hear James Woods' voice emit from the cartoon Hades in Disney's "Hercules" than the young, square-faced Gen. Hein here. Likewise, as Donald Sutherland voices the bald, round-headed Dr. Sid and Baldwin seemingly dubs Affleck, the result is akin to a duck mooing.
These characters are thrust together after much of the Earth has been decimated by phantoms from outer space. (If George Lucas hadn't gotten there first, "The Phantom Menace" would have been an equally apt and less blah subtitle than "The Spirits Within.") Drs. Ross and Sid have a plan to rejuvenate life on Earth by collecting samples of eight essential spirit waves and using them to counteract the alien forces.
The military men, led by the stereotypically blustery and arrogant Gen. Hein, would rather blast the phantom stronghold to smithereens with a weapon called the Zeus Cannon, which Dr. Sid warns will damage the spirit of the Earth. Hein counters that the military methods will be more effective than Dr. Sid's "army of touchy-feely plants and animals."
The movie's preoccupation with environmental and spiritual concerns makes "Final Fantasy" a closer cousin to Japanimation films such as "Princess Mononoke" than loud video-game adaptations like "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" and "Mortal Kombat."
The somber tone and surreal visuals -- such as flaming coils that burst from the ground and corkscrew into the air after a bombing -- underscore the anime connection.
Too bad Sakaguchi's keen eye is accompanied by a tin ear. The dialogue sounds like standard-issue computer-game programming: "Let's get the hell out of here!" "Fire in the hole!" "What the hell is going on here?" "What the hell is going on?"
Also, you'd think by 2065, embattled humans would have come up with a better way to battle alien phantoms than blasting away like machine-gunners fending off Godzilla. The inclusion of so much shooting at ghosts seems a nod to video-gamers accustomed to the rapid-fire mode of playing.
Yet the serious-minded, deliberately paced "Final Fantasy" isn't likely to satisfy the gamers' appetite for action. It also probably isn't heady enough for the science-fiction crowd, and it's too remote for those who simply wish to be immersed in a head-spinning fantasy world. Like Dr. Ross and her companions, the movie artfully mimics life without ever truly living.
"Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within"
Rating: 2 1/2 stars
Directed by Hironobu Sakaguchi; written by Al Reinert, Jeff Vintar; music by Elliot Goldenthal; produced by Jun Aida. A Columbia Pictures release; opens Wednesday. Running time: 1:45. MPAA rating: PG-13 (sci-fi action violence).
Doctor Aki Ross . . . . Ming-Na
Capt. Gray Edwards . . . . Alec Baldwin
Ryan . . . . Ving Rhames
Neil . . . . Steve Buscemi
Jane . . . . Peri Gilpin Doctor Sid . . . . Donald Sutherland
Mark Caro is the Chicago Tribune's movie reporter.
Imitation of life
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