Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is a beautiful but awkward film to watch. By creating the first truly life-like CGI cinematic production, Square Pictures has fractured the audience member's sensibilities, creating a rift between the two comfort zones of cinematic sci-fi: live action and animation. Final Fantasy does not fit the animated film mold (in the Japanese or the Disney sense) nor does it qualify as a live-action film. Hironobu Sakaguchi's intense effort to make the characters, setting, and even the cinematography look real allows the piece to escape from the casual yet forced suspension of disbelief associated with the obvious unreality of animated selections; and yet Final Fantasy continually whispers over one’s shoulder that the actors on the screen are pixels and vectors, not real humans (accentuated by the fact that much of the “acting” is just plain bad). Technological break-through films are usually like that; only in retrospect does the technology seem transparent, or at least translucent. Final Fantasy is so much a break-through film that it is, initially, almost unwatchable, as one is not quite able to take one’s eyes off the unthinkably excellent CGI to attend to the engrossing plot.
This aspect of the film is really nothing that one can objectively complain about. If technology distracts the audience member it is arguably the fault of the audience member and not the film. Indeed, as Star Wars’s Ralph McQuarrie stated, technology is just a tool used to tell a story. And the story told in Final Fantasy needs the technology. Never before could a film maker–-even Lucas--hope to achieve in a single motion picture the amount of special effects and fantasy/sci-fi interaction that Hironobu Sakaguchi has produced in Final Fantasy.
Some story lines just require it, and The Spirits Within takes the viewer on a journey to a not-too distant Earth (CE 2065) where the visuals that make the film exceedingly pleasurable also make the narrative both believable and fascinating to watch. Not since 2001: A Space Odyssey has the science fiction of a sci-fi film been so interesting. The Spirits Within lays it out like a mystery, one that is most enjoyable to see unfold. This is in no small part due to Sakaguchi’s efficient and poignant use of special effects and cinematography. And yet Sakaguchi does not give in to the temptation that such tecnological superiority suggests; Final Fantasy is able to communicate its story well without wasting time just flexing its CGI muscles.
Unfortunately for most audience members, one of the more pressing premises of the narrative centers on the Gaia legend/theory, a pill too unfamiliar and large for most Western thinkers to swallow. Though Gaia is perhaps remembered as the Greek goddess of the Earth, the Gaia theory popular in Japanese pop culture argues that the Earth is actually a collection of unified spirits forming an entity called Gaia. The Gaia theory is not so strongly projected that it is unforgettable, and I expect the Western viewer will be relieved, content to comprehend and accept a plot concerning instantly lethal alien ghosts that have invaded the planet via a giant meteor. But by the film’s climax, Gaia is back into the center and not only threatens to make or break Earth, but the Western viewer’s acceptance of the movie.
Again, an item that is not really something one can objectively complain about. Again, it is an criticism for which lack of understanding can only be the fault of the audience member. But as technology reaches new heights, as cultures begin to cross and interact, how does one deal with such inevitable issues as insufficient familiarity with theories and cultures? How can one share an artistic experience when one is not versed in the father culture’s background? Gaia theory is not the only thing that is curious; other aspects of this film stand out as culturally unfamiliar artifacts as well, and ultimately lead to failed or inferior appreciation of the art.
Having said that, let me note that from an objective point of view the real problem with Final Fantasy's use of Gaia theory as a plot element is in the delivery; instead of presenting this underlying theme with subtlty or any amount of mystery, Sakaguchi throws it out on the table with a fist-pounding demand that it immediately be accepted. Such an approach can be damaging to any film, but to a real science fiction film such as Final Fantasy it is imperative. Think how Bladerunner (Director's Cut) would have come off if director Scott had simply stated the problem of Deckard's humanity instead of employing the clever origami motif throughout the film.
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within demonstrates that Square Pictures has all the elements necessary to create an artistic science fiction/fantasy film: talent, creative vision, and now technological ability seemingly without bounds; it may just be a matter of successfully combining these elements with subtlely and grace in the new cinematic medium to achieve the excellence that Sakaguchi is clearly striving for.