Living actors and actresses can all breathe a sigh of relief. Why? Because if the first-of-its-kind, all-computer-generated (CG) sci-fi movie, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, proves one thing, it’s that technology still has quite a long way to go in artificially recreating human expression physically and emotionally on the big screen.
Right from the earliest scenes of the film featuring extensive dialogue and movements of the digital actors, audiences will be consciously aware that something is awkwardly disingenuous. Reports of audiences giggling or laughing aren't exaggerated. The same affliction plagued the very theater that I attended. The physical movements of the polygonal replicants were surreal and their facial gestures failed to captivate and register with audiences. Expressions were often too stilted and lip movements didn't jive with some of the more lively vocal performances by Donald Sutherland, James Woods, and especially the comedic Steve Buscemi. Ironically, this was never a problem with traditional cel-animation or even previous CG films like Toy Story and A Bug's Life.
Something else along the same lines didn't gel with me either. In the case of the lead male protagonist, Gray Edwards, I'm staring at a near life-like mannequin that bears a strange resemblance to Ben Affleck but... sounds like Alec Baldwin? The same could be said of the Neil Fleming character, who is unmistakably voiced by Steve Buscemi, but semi-looks like Edward Norton. Conceptually, I couldn't resolve the preconceived notions of the actors in my thoughts. Questions kept popping up while I was watching. Were Affleck and Norton the original choices for the roles, but declined the opportunity? Why weren't the digital models made to look more like their vocal counterparts? Even Disney cel-based character designs are molded to resemble their respective voice-actors. If they wanted to avoid this dilemma all together, why not cast unknown voices in the key roles?
I immediately realized the quandary the filmmakers at Square Pictures had to face. On one hand, they had to combat the preconceptions that audiences might associate with the celebrity voices. On the other hand, by using some of Hollywood's most respected actors, the film gains immediate notoriety and might be deemed more accessible and attractive to marketing executives and casual moviegoers alike. Did the filmmakers ultimately make the right decision to go with recognizable voice actors? I'm not sure, but I'll get back to this later.
Another issue that The Spirits Within raises revolves around its decision to create human 3-D models that are near life-like. Is it necessary when you can film the actual voice actors themselves? The most obvious reason for using 3D stand-ins is that you subject them to life-endangering situations that only Jackie Chan in reality would volunteer for. Another reason for using CG technology would be to animate and invent situations that otherwise wouldn't be possible with conventional filmmaking techniques. Films like Toy Story and Dinosaurs are perfect examples of this. Without the advent of 3-D graphics, it wouldn't be possible to produce such convincingly lively playthings and prehistoric creatures.
Strangely, The Spirits Within doesn't aspire to either possibility. While I consider the art direction and set designs to be remarkable, a majority of the film's cinematography, costuming, and creative direction are consciously restrained and earthbound. I think the most symbolic scene is the one where Gray fires his rifle at a plexi-glass window and crashes through it with an acrobatic tumble. The surprising question isn't why such a tired old action-movie cliché was used. The real shocker is why a non-living virtual actor was called upon to perform a relatively simple stunt that any seasoned stuntman could execute in his sleep. What's even more perplexing is that when you juxtapose the plexi-glass-shattering scene in The Spirit Within with the Arnold-crashing-through-the-x-ray-glass one in Paul Verhoeven’s thriller, Total Recall. More than a full decade earlier, not only did the Total Recall scene create more tension and suspense, it was also more of an artistic accomplishment in terms of special effects and stunt coordination.
So instead of making these digital actors more life-like, should they been modeled to be a little more stylized and, in essence, "unreal"? I’m reminded of a scene in the documentary bio of underground comic artist, R. Crumb, in which he advises his teenage son that in order to capture the essence of something, an artist should emphasize or even exaggerate a distinctive feature. Perhaps that's what’s missing from the cast of The Spirits Within. The filmmakers were so busy try to create spirits physically that they forgot to install them internally.
So what does this all mean? Is The Spirits Within a good or bad movie? Let’s look at each traditional judging criterion.
Is the story good? The actual "science" in this serious attempt at science fiction is severely underdeveloped—which I guess means that the film unexpectedly lives up to its "fantasy" title. Many of the film’s mystical elements go unresolved and the ending is simply inconclusive and hollow. The overall plot isn’t exactly formulaic, but it doesn’t standout either as being richly poetic or coherently complex. The structure of the film is not surprisingly set up like a straightforward videogame where there are long static sequences designed to setup the basic story followed by action-driven resolutions with a "party" of characters undergoing a quest of sorts.
Is the film entertaining? The script is rather dry. The romance is tacked on by default. The special effects don’t particularly standout in an age where nearly all films incorporate some form of CG-assisted imagery. None of the action sequences are particularly memorable either, considering the nearly boundless medium.
How is the quality of acting or drama? The digital actors don’t connect with audiences as I mentioned previously for physical reasons, but The Spirits Within is also severely lacking an emotional core as well. So much so, that it literally tries to steal its character foundations from James Camereon’s film Aliens. Aki Ross "borrows" her tortured angst from Sigourney Weaver’s career-making role as Ripley, Neil Fleming is basically the wisecracking Hudson, and Jane Proudfoot is the tough-as-nails-chick, Vasquez. Rounding out the cast is a bunch of action-genre stereotypes. Gray Edwards is the cynical white-bred hero. Dr. Sid is the wise old sage complete with a beard. Ryan Whittaker is the forever "loyal" token African American who inevitably is the first in the group to "buy it." And General Hein is the obvious villain of the film because of the angular shape of his eyebrows, the conniving sound of James Wood’s voice, and most critically, his all-black wardrobe.
Are the visuals worthy of praise? This is one part of the film that seems to make good on its promise. Almost all critics universally agree that this film – despite its flaws – is indeed a new benchmark for computer graphics and film imagery, but more so for its set and graphic design than for its action or special effects sequences. I whole-heartedly agree that if there’s one part of the film that deserves praise, it’s the visually arresting set designs, unique props, luscious landscapes, and distinctive art direction. My only gripe is that the filmmakers seem artistically unaware of what they have accomplished. Great science-fiction films don’t try to convince audiences that this is a film about the future, but rather that it’s a film actually from the future or from another world. The filmmakers for The Spirits Within seem so desperate to connect with audiences using familiar conventions and grammar (i.e. romance, one-liners, stereotypes) that they don’t realize that, in essence, they’ve created a new type of reality. In trying to create a film with mass-market appeal, they failed to realize that this film could have been this generation’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or Blade Runner. I can’t shake the feeling that this movie could have had so much more impact if the filmmakers had more confidence in the medium and just let the style be the substance rather than trying to create substance around the style.
Does the film raise interesting ideas? Yes, but not through its narrative. A tale about spirits, aliens, and after-life is old hat and insignificant. Its most valuable contributions are the ethical and philosophical questions it raises about the medium of film and the role of computer animation. With that said, I honestly don’t feel that I can rate this movie as being "good" or "bad." I think to do so would be severely missing the bigger picture. What I propose is that The Spirits Within isn't really as much a movie as it is an amalgamation of ideas; a centerpiece for discussion in an art theory course. Throughout this review, I tried to scratch the surface of those ideas and examined the questions that arose.
I am unaware as to whether or not the filmmakers ever pondered these questions or even if they are interested in answering them. Indeed the goal of Square Pictures all along may have been to produce a Hollywood summer blockbuster epic with mainstream appeal and unknowingly have opened up a Pandora’s Box. Ultimately, I don’t have the answers to the questions I have raised. That’s not my job. I’ll let the filmmakers of tomorrow debate the virtues and discover the answers. As a critic, I’m only here to frame the questions.