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The Phantom Menace

Jul 9, 2001
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Visuals are A+ - Story More Challenging than Average Video Game Flick

Cons:Doesn't exploit the full potential of the visuals

The Bottom Line: Better than average video game flick only dampened by its creators' failure to use the full potential of its animation

In a time when storytelling has been replaced with music video overkill and writers have been supplanted by reality shows with no need for all those pesky characters and witty dialogue, it was only a matter of seconds before we would be presented with an animated film that promised to look as real as the three-dimensional flesh packages we call actors. Animation has steadily (and sometimes rapidly) progressed throughout the years and continues trying to mold its colors and computerized pixels into authentic beings with celebrity voices. But while Final Fantasy does entertain and may go down in history as the best film ever made from a video game, its makers seemed so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they never stopped to think if they should.

Like any respectable science fiction tale, Final Fantasy takes place well in the future when a crashing meteor carrying alien invaders has made it increasingly difficult to find a home in the suburbs. Cities are in ruins and the only remaining humans seem to be either scientists or soldiers, tucked away in vast metal complexes in an effort to rid the planet of its unwelcome guests. Dr. Aki Ross (voice by Ming-Na) is one such scientist determined to find the eight “spirits” that may hold the key to repelling these creatures that are able to suck the lifeforce out of any being in comes in contact with.

Aki is aided by her mentor, Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) and a ragtag group of soldiers (who missed the casting call for “Aliens”) led by Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin) who used to have a “thing” going with her. Naturally, scientific reasoning and far-fetched theories aren’t enough to satisfy the surviving warmongers amongst us, including General Hein (James Woods) who would prefer to apply his “nuke ‘em” mentality in order the save the Earth even at the cost of its own obliteration.

Aki is determined to find a more natural (and less destructive) method to turning back the aliens. Using (and piecing together) a recurring nightmare she’s having, she begins to suspects that these invisible “phantoms” may not be all that they (or don’t) appear to be, leading to a revelation that is both ironic and downright silly considering their pet names for the invaders.

In its unfolding, Final Fantasy turns out to be the closest an American studio has come to capturing the essence of Anime (or Japanese Animation or JapAnime or whatever it’s being called now), not only in its imagery but also its story. Fantasy doesn’t go strictly for the video game thrills and spills of a Tomb Raider or Mortal Kombat, instead reaching out for the more in-depth (but slower paced) role-playing games and is (mostly) successful. Sure there’s action and even a little humor, but many will be surprised at how many different ideas it has. So much so, that if you’re not paying attention you’re liable to be asking the person next to you what’s happening now only to find out that they are completely lost.

The one aspect of Final Fantasy that everyone will obviously be paying attention to (and is the high concept draw of the film) is the amazing visuals which raises as many questions as the amount of jaws being dropped. Here’s an animated tale that is all but trying to get you to forget that you’re watching an animated tale. The characters move more fluently than Stephen Hawking at an Ecstasy rave. Their hair, the close-ups of the skin, whiskers and their body motions are about as A+ with extra credit as you can get. But once you accept the fluidity of the imagery, where do you go from there? At some point the festival of wow must end and it must evolve into something that will involve you past the point of eye candy.

Final Fantasy creates characters with distinct facial features and bodies, yet has some very recognizable voices behind their lips. It’s a tad strange to hear the voices of Alec Baldwin and Ming-Na protruding from two leads that eerily resemble Bruce Campbell and Bridget Fonda. On many occasions I found myself distracted trying to pick out voices and faces. Doesn’t that big black guy sound like Ving Rhames? That tough chick with the voice of Frasier’s producer (Peri Gilpin) looks like that woman from Space: Above & Beyond and Final Destination (Kristin Cloke). Wow, they sure did a job on Steve Buscemi’s face after that knifing he took a few months ago. That one spaceship seems like a tribute to James Cameron resembling both the gunships from Terminator & Aliens and the “breast ship” from his work on Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars. And now I’ve segued from realizing what’s supposed to be an inanimate object and what is not.

Animation is a term we use to define the painted images of films and television shows that are devoid of the dimensionality that we can touch and feel. Who Framed Roger Rabbit combined animated characters with walking/talking human beings. But when we stop using the word “cartoon”, that’s when we start calling it a “special effect” even though it may still be a form of animation. Look at movies like The Mummy Returns and Star Wars Episode I with huge computer-generated armies marauding the battlefield. Realistic animation or special effects are almost a non-issue anymore. Richard Donner made us “believe a man could fly” and Steven Spielberg made us believe dinosaurs could still walk the earth. Final Fantasy is mainly making waves as it tries to gene-splice animation and live action, Goldblum-style, but comes up a disappointment by not exploiting its full potential.

In this summer’s Shrek, there was a single moment when the camera swooped across a bridge hovering over what appeared to be hundreds of feet over a moat of molten lava while our heroes tried to cross. Therein lies the issue. While we can be occasionally exhilarated by the approach a live-action filmmaker takes, whether he uses special effects or not, the boundaries of action, stunts and camera angles are torn down by the unrestricted limits of animation. So why not use the format to explore the things that can’t be done in live-action cinema instead of telling a story that may be nothing more than another average sci-fi adventure in the live-action world?

The issue of the project’s inception may overcloud what does work in the picture. The visuals are an understatement, and as previously stated, not enough to recommend Final Fantasy. But there is an intriguing story at work here and even through some of the cliches of escaping peril, the resolutions never come with easy answers and will shock many with its bleakness. Action scenes, chiefly the (surprisingly) effective extended compound escape, are well handled if not earth-shattering.

With a tagline like “Fantasy Becomes Reality”, audiences should come to truly expect not only the unexpected, but also the unimaginable. No one would dare call films like Akira or Princess Mononoke mere “cartoons” and Final Fantasy will join the same camp. But is it as visually stunning as it presents itself to be? On one dimension, yes. But consider how certain images, such as the stunning boundless exteriors of the bases, might look like nothing more than a special effect when placed against the foreground of human actors and real machines.

Why not save the money and time, do a live-action Final Fantasy with Campbell and Fonda battling the phantom menace and mocking them with chants of “I’ll swallow your soul! I’ll swallow your soul!”? I suppose the point is that technology can only take us so far in the movies. There’s an infinitude to the visuals and how they can be manipulated, but it takes a master manipulator to open our eyes further and bring us new excitements when the written material isn’t quite as fleshed out.

Go back and watch South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut which used the bare minimum of animation (next to stick figures) and still involved us in a laugh-a-second comedy that not only was one of the greatest musicals in history but actually felt like a live-action movie because of its flawless storytelling. As my friend stated as we left the screening of Final Fantasy, “if it wasn’t for the animation, that movie would have sucked.” Certainly something to think about.

Recommend this product? Yes

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