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Abuse Your Illusion
by Michael Atkinson
Village Voice, July 18 - 24, 2001
An exploding plastic inevitable, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within dares you to be amazed by its soulless mimeograph of humanity. In a dystopian future, this is the only type of movie we'd get to see: manufactured by hard-wiring, stamped from market-proven narrative templates, ostensibly distracting in the sheer bulk of its preprogrammed mayhem. All digital, all the time, Final Fantasy is not a cartoon, but rather a simulacrum of live-action Bruckheimer-ness so factory-pressed it should have an I'm-recyclable triangle embossed on every frame.
Think photo-realism without purpose, ironic or otherwise—and painted by nanotechnology. The movie's conspicuous artillery of faux details is its only Power Point, but today digital imaging is so ubiquitous that the achievement is authentically redundant. (Indeed, the masterfully imitated landscapes evoke the similar wonk-craft of "serious" live-action epics like Gladiator, The Messenger, and Contact.) It is said that a full third of the film's budget was spent on making the heroine's wispy hair convincingly wispy; how many heads of organic hair they could've bought is apparently irrelevant. The exercise is so elaborately pointless you'd think the Pentagon had bankrolled it.
Actually, it's a product of the same Japanese codeheads for whom the eponymous game series has been a spurting cash cow. The story itself is reheated Arthur C. Clarke: As giant alien "phantoms" (resembling microscopically photographed mosquitoes) besiege the earth, Identikit humans rally. There's a digital Ben Affleck (with Alec Baldwin's voice), a digital Neve Campbell (with Ming-Na's voice), a digital Jason Priestley (with Steve Buscemi's voice), etc. In this New Age, everything is helpfully color-coded: Silvery blue is good Gaia, leathery red is bad Gaia. For all of the monumental attention paid to visual fidelity (even a few lens flares and moments of handheld shakiness), the techies still can't manage to make two characters look convincingly into each other's eyes—it's like watching Disney World animatronic figures do soap opera.
The ultimate justification for Final Fantasy, it seems, is the wholesale subtraction of people from the entertainment equation; the games triumphed without the wetware, didn't they? But of course, they didn't: First-person electronic gaming revolves around and happens to a very human player, and without him/her, it's just machine love.