Just so we don't get too far off track here, it should be stated up front what Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is not, since what it is is a lot more interesting.
It is not a replacement for flesh-and-blood actors. It is not Starship Troopers, although some of the art design is similar. It is not a video game adaptation, except in name and general theme. It is not a Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster in the traditional sense.
What Final Fantasy really is, in addition to being spectacular entertainment and the leading contender for the first Oscar for Best Animated Feature, is the most high-tech, mass-market Japanese animation to hit these shores. If you go in expecting absolute realism, you'll be disappointed. While the computer animation is fantastic and on a level we've never seen before, it is still animation, a stylization of reality. The digital-versus-human-actor debate is still not yet relevant, and until we develop full artificial intelligence, it never will be, as it'll always be more economical to have a human deliver a line.
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
But the Japanese sensibility goes further than just the technologically advanced look of the film. Numerous hallmarks of the more popular anime films are at work, from the complicated plot mechanics that seem to require a second viewing to fully comprehend (such elements are often deliberate in Japan, to encourage repeat attendance) to an Eastern spirituality that deals with our connections to Gaia the Earth-spirit to a final shapeless monster that recalls the climactic mutation of Tetsuo in Akira. It also extends to a somewhat cheesy end song that may make audiences laugh aloud, especially those who aren't as familiar with Japanese sci-fi. (The song and other unusual moments probably will play to American audiences like the flying in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Folks will either be entranced or just think it's dumb.) It should be added that even folks attuned to the film's sensibility will find a few things laughable.
So what's the movie about? You've probably figured out that it's more than just the shoot-'em-up depicted in the TV spots. There's action aplenty, to be sure, but like Crouching Tiger, the film takes its sweet time before getting to the deadly, semi-invisible monsters that suck out human souls and crunch them up between giant ethereal mandibles. Set in a future in which Earth has been devastated by said translucent critters -- which come in all shapes and sizes, from misshapen humanoid to flying serpent to 50-foot bug -- we find humanity engaged in the usual debate about a political versus a military solution.
On the one side is General Hein (voice of James Woods), who proposes using a gigantic space-based laser to shoot at the crater where the aliens first landed. On the other side is Dr. Sid (voice of Donald Sutherland), who has figured out that the aliens reproduce in quantities directly proportional to the number killed, resulting in a net loss of zero.
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Having long since discovered the energy that is the source of all life and measured its frequency, Dr. Sid has recently discovered the equivalent in the aliens, and believes he can create an energy wave that will neutralize their life force. To generate the wave, he needs to find seven unique life spirits whose signatures can combine to create the wave. The key to his plan is Dr. Aki Ross (voice of Ming-Na), who has been infected by the aliens but has managed to keep her disease in check with a rudimentary, weaker prototype of the neutralization wave. It's best to just roll with the explanatory stuff.
Aiding Sid and Aki in their mission is the latter's ex-boyfriend, Gray Edwards (voice of Alec Baldwin), a hard-nosed soldier who nevertheless refuses to obey the orders of the evil General Hein. There are considerably more plot revelations, but you don't need to know them yet. Suffice to say they're easier to follow than the initial explanations, though the film never assumes its audience is stupid (except perhaps when it blatantly cribs the butch chick/nerdy guy supporting character dynamic from Aliens).
Did we mention that the effects are stunning? Need it even be said at this point? Unbound by having to use rigged wires, the antigravity sequences are breathtakingly perfect, and the translucent aliens are like nothing you've ever seen. Every hair on the characters' heads looks alive, though the fact that so many are bald or have crewcuts is clearly no accident. And the story is solid, though it does at times bear a frightening resemblance to the "Xenu" origin story told to higher-level Scientologists. (The film's spiritual heart, however, is closer to Buddhism or Wicca.)
As for how this Final Fantasy relates to the games that give it its title -- not much. Then again, each of those games was unrelated to its predecessor, though all deal in some way with the concept of the spirit and the quest to collect a series of items that will help save a dying world. Game creator Hironobu Sakaguchi is also the film's director, and he does a fine job with the visuals, though the fact that he doesn't speak English may account for some of the more wooden lines.