'Final Fantasy' Sticks to Game Plan


It's 2065 and Dr. Aki Ross of "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" is having a recurring vision. "Every night the same dream, the same strange planet," she marvels. "What are they trying to tell me?"

How about, "Get into another film and do it now."

Sound advice, but not easy to follow, because "Final Fantasy" features not flesh-and-blood characters but state-of-the-art computer-generated, photorealistic human beings.

Much has been written about how lifelike these creations are, about how many thousands of hours were spent getting the 60,000 hairs on Dr. Ross' head to look like Jose Eber just finished fussing with them. But though the doctor is more lifelike than the torch-bearing woman in the Columbia Pictures logo, anyone who thinks she and her colleagues are indistinguishable from real people has been drinking too much dandelion wine.

"Final Fantasy's" original story, by producer-director Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of the popular video game series the film is based on, is also a hybrid of sorts. It combines science-fiction with tree hugging, joining a Buck Rogers style of action with the ethos of self-sacrifice and ecological consciousness that characterized "Princess Mononoke."

It's an uneasy fit at best, and one that's not helped by a clunky, over-complicated Al Reinert and Jeff Vintar script that's rife with lines like "This city may be lost, but we're not" and the classic "What have I done?" sentiments that a real actor would find difficult to say on screen with a straight face.

Still, just as no one is going to the audaciously pornographic "Baise Moi" to hear the glories of spoken French, no one is likely to head for "Final Fantasy" expecting a nuanced emotional experience. It's the visuals that are the lure, and here the film is on firmer ground.

Making good use of all that video game experience, the "Final Fantasy" crew has come up with an elaborately constructed, visually diverting futuristic world that has a solid, cartoonish watchability. The film has also done a good job with its phantom menaces, decidedly strange and increasingly grotesque otherworldly forms that have made life on Earth impossible.

It's been 35 years since since the Leonid meteor hit the Carpathian mountains and disgorged a phantasmagorial group of aliens who are intent on sucking the souls out of every living thing. Called phantoms, these beings have forced humans to retreat inside tightly sealed barrier cities as they try to come up with a way to counter this plague and save the planet.

Headed by the wise Dr. Sid (voiced by Donald Sutherland but looking rather like Vladimir Lenin), a group of scientists has come up with what the film calls a peaceful, organic solution. Sid's idea is that all life forms have individual spirit waves, and he and Dr. Ross (Ming-Na) are engaged in a worldwide scavenger hunt to find eight specific waves that, when combined, will form a force strong enough to counterbalance the phantoms.

While on the hunt, Dr. Ross gets into trouble and needs to be rescued by a paramilitary squad called the Deep Eyes and led by her ex-flame, Capt. Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin). The team, including Ryan (Ving Rhames), his tough No. 2, and the wise-cracking duo of Neil (Steve Buscemi) and Jane (Peri Gilpin), is where the film gets most banal and conventional.

Not everyone on the planet, however, is on board with Dr. Sid's theory. Especially not the evil, devious Gen. Hein (James Woods), who not surprisingly will do anything for the chance to fire the fearsome Zeus Cannon, an ultimate weapon that Dr. Sid fears will do irreparable harm to Gaia, the spirit of the Earth itself.

Though drama is easily its weakest element, this latest example of the videogamization of Hollywood insists on taking this stuff seriously, even though the sight of these characters getting romantic is about as involving as watching two expensive mannequins kissing in a Macy's window.

The film's plot gets so convoluted no nongamer older than 14 will be able to follow it all. The press notes may boast that "security cameras mounted next to doors that opened only by coded electronic key protected the top-secret project during production," but if guarding the script was part of the deal, they needn't have bothered.

* MPAA rating: PG-13, for sci-fi action violence. Times guidelines: Phantoms may be too intense for younger viewers.

'Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within'

Ming-Na: Dr. Aki Ross

Alec Baldwin: Capt. Gray Edwards

Ving Rhames: Ryan

Steve Buscemi: Neil

Peri Gilpin: Jane

Donald Sutherland: Dr. Sid

James Woods: Gen. Hein

Columbia Pictures and Square Pictures present a Chris Lee and Square Co. Ltd. production, released by Sony Pictures. Director Hironobu Sakaguchi. Co-director Moto Sakakibara. Producer Jun Aida, Chris Lee, Hironobu Sakaguchi. Screenplay by Al Reinert, Jeff Vintar, based on an original story by Hironobu Sakaguchi. Editor Christopher S. Clapp. Music Elliot Goldenthal. Casting and voice director Jack Fletcher. Animation director Andy Jones. Computer graphics supervisor Gary Mundell. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.

In general release.

FOR THE RECORD Los Angeles Times Saturday July 14, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction Film editor--In the credit box for the review of the film "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" in Wednesday's Calendar, editor Christopher S. Capp's last name was misspelled.
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