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John Wilson

Artificial Creation: Final Fantasy

When the film industry was in its infancy, the mere presence of "moving pictures" was enough to keep audiences spellbound. A pre-1900 viewer marveled at a film that simply showed a seashore: amazing, he said, how much the waves on the screen resembled real waves. The same was true of early animation, as Hugh Kenner observes in his wonderful book Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings:

Moviegoers had a passion. … for nothing more subtle than the sheer illusion of motion. It sufficed that on a wavery screen they saw—galloping horses! (And therein lay the germ of the Western.) Chuck Jones remembers when it was hilarious if an animated walker just hopped once in a while, an effect he's used himself in several films. A story? That could emerge from whatever some animator happened to think of next.

A similar logic seems to have been at work in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, the first animated feature in which the protagonists are "played" by nearly lifelike digital actors. Is it enough simply to watch animated characters who look so uncannily real—and never mind the cobbled-together story, the excruciating dialogue? Not just the characters, for that matter, but also the ravaged streets of post-apocalypse New York, the lifting rockets, the dreamscapes with their preternatural clarity of detail, realer than real, like the great sci-fi cover art of Paul Lehr and John Berkey and Robert Andre. (And isn't the banality of the title and subtitle sufficient warning for those who wouldn't be satisfied by skin of almost human texture?) Maybe it is enough. But in any case there's another compelling reason to pay attention.

The front page of The New York Times for July 17 showed the interior of the first artificial heart. (In its June 23 issue, The Economist reports that "every part of the human body is being studied to see how it can be replicated artificially.") The cover of the August issue of Wired shows the wheelchair-bound writer John Hockenberry coming at you, kamikaze-style, framed by a mini-manifesto: "Your body. Get over it." (Inside, Hockenberry explains: "Bodies are perhaps an arbitrary evolutionary solution to issues of mobility and communication." Hence the disabled—wedded to assistive technology—are leading the way for the rest of humanity, heralding "a whole range of biological-machine hybrids.") And at the local cineplex this summer, you could take in a matinee of Steven Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, break for nachos, migrate a couple of screens down the hallway for the carnage of Jurassic Park III (live action seamlessly melded with superbly plausible computer-generated images), pick up a hot dog and a Coke, and finish the night with Final Fantasy.

Clearly something's afoot, some mind-bending change in the rules that heretofore have neatly distinguished the real from the simulated and the human from the not-human, the rules that have defined the nature and the boundaries of the body and its relation to soul or spirit or self. "Movie Stars Fear Inroads by Upstart Digital Actors" reads the headline of another New York Times article (July 8), illustrated with a still from Final Fantasy. Did a rogue tabloid writer or maybe a wit from The Onion hack into the Times? No, the story is straight. "I'm very troubled by it," Tom Hanks is quoted as saying. Could this movie offer insight into whatever it is we're in the midst of?

Four years in the making at the Square Pictures studio in Honolulu, Final Fantasy takes its name from the enormously popular series of computer games created by Hironobu Sakaguchi, who was also the principal architect of the movie. (The first version of the game appeared in 1987; the release of Final Fantasy X, scheduled for this spring, was pushed back a bit.) The link between the film version and the games is a sensibility, a style of visual storytelling strongly influenced not only by anime (Japanese animation, a whole universe of its own, ranging from the confections of Pokemon to darker, deeper films like Akira and Princess Mononoke) but also by Sakaguchi's passion for movies in general. The "world" of the film Final Fantasy and its characters are not based on any of the games.

The year is 2065. Much of Earth lies in ruins, laid waste by mysterious aliens ("Phantoms," as they're called) that were loosed decades earlier by the impact of a meteorite. In the never-ending war waged since that catastrophic event, humans have been steadily losing ground until they are restricted to the refuge of a few intact "barrier cities." Extinction looms; it's a time for drastic measures.

General Hein (voiced by James Woods) has a plan. He's supervised the construction of a superweapon, the Zeus Cannon, positioned on a space station. He is impatient to unleash it on the Phantoms' "nest" on Earth. But the governing council hesitates to approve the plan, restrained in part by the influence of Dr. Sid (voiced by Donald Sutherland), a scientist, who has asked for time to pursue an alternative strategy. Dr. Sid's protege, the brilliant, resourceful, and beautiful Dr. Aki Ross (Ming-Na), is the central character in the story.

If this sounds awfully cliched in summary, it's even worse in the theater. The incongruity between the artistry and craft and imagination—the painstaking making—of the animation and the lameness of the story is staggering. Even so, Final Fantasy does not merely touch on what it means to be human incidentally, by accident as it were, in the course of its ambition to create lifelike animated characters. In fact, along with the usual furniture of the futuristic thriller, including a good deal of gunplay and even the 2065 equivalent of a car chase, Final Fantasy serves up a simplified and highly didactic version of James Lovelock's Gaia theory, a sort of Gaia for Dummies™ with embellishments by Dr. Sid.

Lovelock, you'll recall, has notoriously argued that the Earth itself is a purposeful organism, a self-regulating system encompassing all living things. Dr. Sid goes further. Each living being, he says, has its own spirit, and upon death that spirit returns to Gaia. He has discovered that from the spirits of eight organisms representing the spectrum of life he can create an "energy wave" that will cancel out the negative energy of the Phantoms. Much of the action of the movie consists of Aki's efforts to track down those spirits.

How does this sit with the audience?

I would be interested to know. (In an interview, one of the film's producers commented on the importance of defining a core audience; the core audience for Final Fantasy, he said, is teenage boys and young men in their early twenties.) But one thing is sure. It gives the movie a dimension that most action films assiduously avoid: reflection on what is left, if anything, of the person who is killed in combat—and thus, by extension, what is left of any of us when we die. Are we something more than our bodies, finally—or are we, as the cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky maintains, simply machines made of meat?

In quite a different and less conscious way, the character of Aki prods us to uncomfortable awareness of our confusions about body and spirit and self—confusions that seem most deeply entangled in the notion of Woman, where the old rules are out and new ones have yet to be established.

Like so many real women at the center of recent movies, Aki is a study in unresolved contradictions. On the one hand, to the point of caricature, she is a formidably "independent" woman, smarter and more competent than anybody else in the story—more stubborn, too. On the other hand, she is deeply vulnerable, infected by a barely contained Phantom, lodged in her chest, that threatens to take her life. She is a scientist, a master of reason and analysis, yet she is also a seer: it's the alien presence within her body that prompts the dreams which allow her finally to solve the mystery of the Phantoms. It's as if to be a proper twenty-first-century woman she must exemplify traditional male qualities and certain traditional female attributes.

Such tensions are most acute in the treatment of her body, her sheer presence. She is onscreen in almost every scene, and the "eye" of the film dwells on her. Every detail—every explosion, every bit of rubble, every gesture—required extraordinary effort, but the care and invention lavished on the creation of Aki were unmatched. Chris Lee, one of the producers, says that Aki has "60,000 individual strands of hair, which took 20 percent of the entire production time to create and render." These prodigies of attention did not go to waste. You can't take your eyes off her.

Yet Aki is at once seductively sexual and strangely unphysical. Her kiss with her love interest, the jut-jawed Captain Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin), is almost antiseptic. In fact, the only moment in the film when her body becomes palpably physical is the revelation of the Phantom coiled and writhing inside her—and even that is managed by a futuristic version of an MRI.

I imagine a reader protesting: In our hypersexualized culture, you are complaining that this animated woman—in a movie partly aimed at young teenage boys!—is not physical enough? Good grief! But the point is that the movie tries to have it both ways, and somehow ends up with a woman who is virtually disembodied—as so many women in movies are.

Dr. Frankenstein had many predecessors. The desire to create a simulacrum of a human being is so deeply rooted as to be untraceable. In that long history from Homer to the Golem to Philip K. Dick—a history, almost exclusively, of the male imagination—there's a recurring fascination with the notion of creating a woman. Hence the myth of Pygmalion, King of Cyprus, who carved a statue in the form of a beautiful young woman and then fell in love with it, or her. Legend has it that the philosopher and scientist Albertus Magnus, Aquinas's teacher, created a lifesize mechanical woman that Thomas destroyed, regarding it as a diabolical work. A recent version is the "replicant" Rachel in the movie Blade Runner.

And then there's Aki. In the creation of such a character, there's a comically transparent attempt to pay homage to new, approved notions about women while at the same time old notions are smuggled in. It's easy to see from the outside, easy to mock, but much harder to correct. Who is going to throw the first stone?

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