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Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2001

Pixels can't really tell the whole story

Final Fantasy

Rating: * * * Director: Hironobu Sakaguchi Running time: 106 minutes Language: English Now showing

Fans of computer games and animation have been clamoring for more realism for decades: more ferocious-looking fights, more babelicous-looking babes. Game developers and animators have responded so well that it's become harder and harder to tell the CGI-generated stuff from real life.

Dr. Aki Ross (voiced by Ming Na) and Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin) in "Final Fantasy"

For "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within," a film based on the popular Final Fantasy game series, director Hironobu Sakaguchi and his international team of animators spent nearly three years and $140 million narrowing the gap even further. They created images that, for once, deserve the over-used adjective "stunning," including renderings of human characters startling in their lifelike detail: hair that blows, eyes that blink and muscles that move almost like the real thing.

Equally spectacular is the film's failure at the U.S. box office, and despite the support of Roger Ebert and a few others, it proved a critical misfire as well. What went wrong?

I went to the theater aware of the film's U.S. reception, but inclined to sympathy as, like Ebert, I'm a sucker for intelligently applied CGI gee-whizzery. I left feeling as though I'd seen a 3-D diorama created by otaku with a thing for creepy crawlies, futuristic weaponry and babes in body suits. I was impressed by the technology, but unmoved by the drama.

While the film's superbly imaged and executed alien world compels suspension of disbelief (though what do we have to judge it against?), its human characters do not. I found myself watching as if they were mannequins, sensing the odd disjunction between the unfamiliar faces and familiar voices (Donald Sutherland, Alec Baldwin, Steve Buscemi and James Woods, among others).

Odd -- I can enter into the worlds of "Pinocchio" and "Spirited Away," so why not "Final Fantasy," with its far more sophisticated 3-D images? With traditional 2-D animation, I am not being asked to believe that Gepetto and Sen are the real things -- I complete their humanity with my imagination, from a look or gesture that suggests an attitude or emotion.

In "Final Fantasy," however, the characters look and move uncannily like living, breathing humans, while reminding me all too often how much better Sutherland, Baldwin, Buscemi and Woods would play these roles than their embalmed-looking CGI simulacra. Not that even these veteran actors, as well as newcomers Ving Rhymes and Ming Na, could bring the tired space-opera story and generic dialogue to life.

The setting is Earth in the year 2065, following an invasion by aliens that look like glowing translucent creatures from the ocean depths and kill by sucking the life spirit out of their victims. The few remaining humans hide behind energy shields, while elite warriors called Deep Eyes venture out to attack the creatures with weapons that shatter but fail to destroy them. The final solution, decides the saturnine Gen. Hein (Woods), is an orbiting space canon that will blow the creatures to smithereens in one mighty blast.

Meanwhile, Dr. Aki Ross (Ming Na), the slinky, super-bright Eurasian heroine, is working with elderly mentor Dr. Sid (Sutherland) to defeat the aliens by zapping them with eight "spirit waves" from Gaia, the planetary life force. Hein derides their efforts as so much New Age wish-fulfillment, while scheming to unleash his own version of Armageddon.

Aki, however, is convinced that Hein's success would entail destruction not only of the aliens but of the entire planet as well. To thwart him, she enlists the support of the Deep Eyes team, led by the square-jawed Gray Edwards (Baldwin) who begins as a scoffer but becomes a believer as he falls deeper under Aki's spell -- and in love.

This scenario has antecedents in innumerable arcade games, not to mention the science fiction that preceded them. More interesting are Aki's dream sequences. Having absorbed alien life substance into her body, she finds herself transported, in her night mind, to their planet, where she encounters strange wonders and revelations. These scenes have a visual sweep and imaginative boldness that, more than the task of making hair swing like a shampoo ad, probably inspired the film's talented animators to come to work in the morning.

If I were a teenager in a game arcade, I'd sooner be kicking alien butt as a realistic Aki than some cartoonish babe with saucer eyes. In the theater, however, I am not in control of a joystick but simply watching a screen on which a real, live Angelina Jolie, even with her absurdly padded bra, is going to pack a bigger punch than even the best a computer can serve up (and "Tomb Raider" has the box office numbers to prove it).

Will the computer wizards ever win the human-actor-vs.-synthespian battle? They might have a better chance if they paid more attention to acting chops and less to CGI-perfect beard stubble. Meanwhile, Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away," with its old-fashioned 2-D animation and soaring imaginative leap into a fantasy world of gods and goblins, is rewriting Japanese box-office records. Is there a lesson there somewhere?

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