Let's be blunt: you're not going to see Final Fantasy for the story. Nevertheless, somewhere between the reams of dollar signs and computer code, a story (of sorts) there is. Like the spirits of the title, though, it's hidden deep within.
Of greater interest by far is the much-trumpeted computer animation and the impressive realisation of Final Fantasy's post-apocalyptic planet. Almost all life has been destroyed and the land is more like a stark and scarred moonscape than a verdant Earth - - grey and barren, it's the perfect canvas on which to paint some alien animé. Sci-fi fans and programmers will find it hard to contain their glee as battleships explode in vibrant tongues of orange and red, and ghostly spirits suck dry the army's life force in a glorious swoosh of blue. The alien phantoms, luminous and ethereal, are both beautiful and terrifying (if more than a little reminiscent of that other overblown CGI fantasy, The Lawnmower Man).
But based as it is on a videogame - - as well as being written and directed by that game's creator, Hironobu Sakaguchi - - many of the movie's constituent elements are taken from the gaming rather than the film-making rulebook: think increasingly powerful enemy combatants, the hero's quest, more and more challenging levels... Yet such devices leave The Spirits Within stumbling blindly, reaching for a solid base from which its plot can develop coherently.
Sakaguchi's writing, too, is depressingly poor. His hackneyed, fanboyish script relies far too much on intrusive narration and memory recollection, meaning that everything is stated rather than simply shown. Then there's the fact that the voicing actors are obviously overcompensating for their lack of physical presence, speaking each line as if trying to make a great impression. Even the usually brilliant Steve Buscemi sounds like a first-jobber, determined to get a call back as the not-so-comic relief.
As for the much-hyped "human" characters? Well, in close-up, they are astoundingly constructed. Each freckle, each patch of stubble, each furrowed brow seems so real that to realise it's not is more frightening than any ghastly monster on screen. But once the virtual-camera pulls back, they're revealed as little more than clumsy virtual mannequins: watch them run with awkward, loping judders, or move their lips a fraction of a second behind the dialogue, making all the wrong shapes with their ever-smiling mouths.
Ironically, it's the knowledge that these characters are nothing more than expensive data codes that proves the film's most fascinating aspect: you become so obsessed with the flaws in the CGI that you almost forget about the appalling substandard of pretty much everything else.
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Klutzy scripting, meandering plotting and puppetlike "people" make this wannabe groundbreaker a failure. Humans should hang on to those Equity cards - - this is just a John Carpenter-at-his-worst B-movie masquerading as the future of animation.