There are a number of things about Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within that are smart, more that are clichéd, but only one that's truly clever:
Whereas most computer-generated imagery (CGI) productions--including Final Fantasy
itself--concern themselves with replicating the tactile, the subject matter is, for the most part, about the ethereal.
Certainly, the movie's trappings are those of many a science-fiction production: a post-apocalyptic Earth, eerily nonhuman adversaries, humankind on the brink of destruction, and only two people who have the savvy to figure out what's going on, luckily backed up by the only military squadron who might be sympathetic to them.
But the nemeses themselves, appropriately dubbed phantoms, are intangible. Ghostlike, they pass through matter as if it weren't there, their glowing, limned forms rendered more horrific for their lack of solidity. When they touch one of the movie's many victims, the poor individual slumps to the ground, instantly lifeless, as a blue figure leaves his body: a human phantom--now, self-referentially, a spirit without. In fact, there's a genuinely chilling moment when someone gets hit by a phantom, and his spirit, being pulled out of his body, clings to his solid form as it jerks spasmodically between life and death.
He loses, of course, but visually the audience wins. Whenever the phantoms are onscreen or Dr. Aki Ross (voice of Ming-Na Wen) is experiencing one of the movie's many dream states, Final Fantasy
is a feast for the eyes. While it's true that human features are rendered more realistically than ever before, it's equally true that the novelty wears off fairly quickly. It turns out the terrible beauty of, say, the giant dragon-like creature that chases our heroes' ship outside of Tucson's remnants is far more captivating than any of Aki's 60,000 individual hairs.
If I seem to be fixating on Final Fantasy
's look more than its story, that's because there's more style than substance. While the plot does feature a few surprises for the genre, its reliance on stock characters and situations belies the movie's videogame origins. Were the movie live-action, I'd have been bored for much of its running time, pausing only to chuckle at Steve Buscemi's scared-sarcastic-chatterbox reading of squad member Neil Fleming and to admire the nightmarish critters. For a first attempt at a film with an all-CGI cast, Final Fantasy
is remarkable; you can clearly see where this technology will lead, supplanting extras, stunt doubles, and eventually the occasional lead actor. If only the story could have been as forward-looking.