November 05, 2007

Final Fantasy

Final Fantasy is a better movie than it's generally given credit for, and a breakthrough in its own right. Which is not to say it's not a flawed film. It's an egregiously flawed film. But unlike, for example, the egregious flaws in so many Spielberg films, that often render the final product reprehensible, the flaws in Final Fantasy only serve to make it all the more intriguing and thought-provoking.

Final Fantasy is probably better known as the first completely digital "live action" animated motion picture (a couple of oxymora in there); that is, it isn't a cartoon. The attempt was to make it a "real" (another oxymoron--"real" fantasy?) as possible. And on purely technical grounds, it largely succeeds, though years from now it may appear as advanced as Tron does now (a scary thought. One of the curiosities is seeing what does and what does not work.

It comes down to faces; more specifically, the mouth. The gestures that people naturally use to animate conversation also seem a bit wooden at times (motion capture technology has solved the second problem but not the first). Still, there are stretches where you forget you are watching a 100 percent digitally generated image (which says as much about the suspension of disbelief as anything else).

All in all, the science fiction milieu well suits the style: somewhat sterile and shielded from the bothersome randomness of nature. It also helps that much of the time people are dressed up in space suits. But I wouldn't classify it as "live action." It's high-concept, high-quality anime, a combination of two venerable anime themes: "mecha" and what I term "Shinto SF&F."

The alien asteroid whacking into the Earth, sending the World's Greatest Minds into frenzy of wondering why-are-they-here and what-do-they-want is also a well-used anime plot device (e.g., Macross, Evangelion).

Mecha (pronounce the /ch/ as in "match") is derived from "mechanical," and refers to anime that centers around mechanical gadgets, specifically body armor and robots manned by human operators. Mecha is not a principle element in Final Fantasy, except in the general sense, meaning attention to mechanical detail. Anything that unscrews, unlatches, turns, whirs, spins and goes click-clack gets screen time (Wings of Honneamise employs this almost to excess).

But the plot itself is "Shinto SF" to the core. And that's where the problems start.

By "Shinto SF&F" I mean an animistic teleology (derived from Shinto, but mixed in with elements of Buddhism and Christianity) that is taken as a given. Miyazaki's Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke are good examples, though Miyazaki has a light touch compared to others (e.g., Blue Seed). These stories lean heavily on animism and the cultural framework that defines its expression, in the same way that gothic horror defines itself in terms of Christian theology, most of the Catholic school.

It seems obvious to me that this was the working philosophy for Hironobu Sakaguchi and Motonori Sakakibara, the producer/director team of Final Fantasy. But in gearing the story towards the American audience, this scaffolding was stripped away, leaving behind a fat-free, New Age substitute makes you cringe rather than wonder. If you're going to spend a good amount of time talking about spirits and souls and the end-of-life-as-we-know-it, you've got to have a eschatology rigorous enough to support it all.

It was done better (though not commercially so) in Black Hole, a piece of Gothic SF&F that was also better than the critics said ("Gothic SF&F" being the occidental equivalent of "Shinto SF&F"), despite its cutesy, Disneyfied diversions. Black Hole takes Milton as its foundation, and Milton can carry the weight. (Event Horizon revisited the same themes, but didn't pull it off, largely because the director couldn't tell the difference between creating ambience and shoving ambience in your face.)

Another good example is Lewis's That Hideous Strength. Lewis employs surprisingly little overt Christianity, only occasionally pulling back the curtains to reveal the two-by-fours holding everything up. With the introduction of Merlin he creates a kind of animistic, primordial Christian religiosity that I believe Sakaguchi and Sakakibara were striving for.

But without a similar foundation, they're left to pile on the philosophizing, and then grind the movie to a halt so the protagonists can sit around and discuss what-the-heck-is-going-on. A strange thing to do in an animated film. About thirty minutes in I started thinking to myself, this all seems familiar: Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell (which I also like, despite similar problems).

The protagonist in Ghost, Lt. Kusanagi, resembles Fantasy's Aki Ross physically and emotionally; they are both characters for whom the external conflict is almost completely subsumed by the existential quest. They even sound similar--distant, removed from the outer world, loners (I'm comparing Ming-Na, who voiced Mulan, to Ghost's Atsuko Tanaka; the original English-language dub of Ghost went for a Linda Hamilton/T2/tough-girl reading and ruined it). The leading men, Captain Edwards in Fantasy and Bateau in Ghost are clones as well.

Where they really cross paths is in this thick layer of animistic teleology. And consequently, they share the same flaws: trying to package a novel's worth of Deep Thinking into a short-story amount of space. The more they try to explain, the worse it gets. Probably better to do what Kubrick did in the last half hour of 2001: don't explain anything, just hang it all out there to dry. At least then the "serious" critics will take it as Terribly Profound, whether it makes any sense or not.

But if you're familiar with the genre, if you're familiar with any kind of Lewisian-type fiction, Final Fantasy isn't confusing; you can spot almost at once what they are trying to do, and where it goes wrong. Because the sum of the parts, in this case, is greater than the whole, the entertainment value then is trying to figure out what you would do to fix it.

Final Fantasy is rated PG-13, I think to prevent small children from being bored to death in between the action sequences. Rare that you can fault anime for a lack of explicitness (compare Ghost in the Shell), but in Final Fantasy it is necessary to conclude that protagonists kissing = protagonists having sex. Something a tad more suggestive would have helped, considering that the consequences of that coupling are absolutely critical to the plot.

They also needed to dial up the Trite Dialogue Detector a few notches.

Lastly, the casting is great: Ming-Na, Alec Baldwin, Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi, Donald Sutherland (providing a much-needed center of gravity), James Woods. Maybe money can't buy you a great work of art, but it certainly can buy you talent.

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