Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
Okay, before any possible review the question of whether or not this movie counts as anime must be raised. Unfortunately I'm not totally sure what the answer is to that one. It's animated, although entirely by computer, and is made (to some extent) by the Japanese although I have heard that the target audience was American. In any case, because it is an interesting portent for the future of anime, I'll risk reviewing it. But do be aware that if you burst into anime groups or newsgroups talking about final fantasy the response may be less than enthusiastic.
I should also mention that it's relation to the famous games of the same name is somewhat unclear. It's by the same creator, but I believe the story is an original creation intended to stand alone. As a result many fans of the game series felt betrayed while other fans didn't see the movie assuming you needed to be familiar with the games. Such is the way of things I guess.
At some point in the future a huge meteor hits the Earth. One imagines its impact was devastating enough, but even more worrying was the fact that it carried passengers. Strange alien beings, seemingly composed entirely of energy, who appear to be able to feed on the `spirits' of mankind, a process which is invariably fatal. Since they don't appear capable of communication, and are (assumedly) immune to conventional weaponry, in addition to being invisible without special equipment, one imagines that things went very badly for mankind.
Perversely it also seems that these deadly creatures have caused huge scientific advances. Powerful new energy sources, potent weapons and shields against the aliens have all been developed using technology derived from the research into the aliens. Although some of the research, including a `Gaia' theory that postulates the existence of a terrestrial energy similar to that of the aliens, is seen as going a little too far. Especially by the military who'd much rather rely on the guns and grunts they have now. Still a scientist driven by his belief, and his field agent with a much more pressing reason, will risk all to find this truth which may end up as the only hope of saving humanity.
One of the strongest reasons for reviewing this title is that it managed to so spectacularly miss the needs of the mainstream American audience. The idea of a Japanese group making a movie for Americans, and getting some important facts wrong, being a familiar one for anime fans. The fascinations with `spirits', and some half philosophy / half science that links them together would probably work much better in Japan. Likewise there's too much talking, too little action, and the story is not `direct' enough. The somewhat subtle and ambiguous conclusion being another strike against it. In a proper American film things explode at the end of the movie.
Obviously I'm being far too general, simplistic and sarcastic here. I'm also talking only about mainstream, big budget, American movies rather than the far more interesting alternatives. That said it comes as no surprise that the reviews of this movie have been largely negative. While the movie does have some weaknesses, especially in the foundations of the story, I do wonder if a lot of the dislike comes from the mood being different from the way things are expected to be. I also wonder if many anime fans might find the manner in which the story is handled to be more familiar than most.
Personally, I rather liked it. The characters are brought out well and the story develops quite nicely. While the logic behind the story requires a leap of faith it does lead to a nice sequence of events. The conclusion, while perhaps too subtle and a bit ambiguous, makes a pleasant change and has a nice mixture of loss and gain in it. The technical design, and vision, of the movie is superb. Those who love military hardware and detailed sci-fi will enjoy the huge amount of work that has gone into the background of this series.
Of course many people also focus on the production, and deservedly so. This movie is completely computer generated but has focused on gaining the appearance of reality. The characters and environment go a long way to looking like the real thing. There are still enough flaws for the eye to notice, especially in the way things move and in close-ups, but this is brilliant stuff. It significantly raises the bar for future attempts in this direction. Also of note is the restraint exhibited, where the computer would allow them to do anything they have chosen to dedicate themselves almost entirely to re-creating reality. If nothing else I adore this movie because it means that simply being computer generated is no longer enough to be interesting.
I must admit, however, to being surprised that the film is let down by a human element. The voice acting is generally good but has both too many weak moments and a general lack of character. At times the dialog did not flow naturally and sounded far too wooden, which was really surprising in such a big budget production.
In any case this movie is interesting and worth seeing. Not only because of the dramatic technical advance it represents, in a medium we can expect to see a lot more of, but also because it poses a challenge to anime itself. What is the definition of anime, what is it about anime we fans prize, and will this new technology add or subtract from the media we love? It will be interesting to see how this plays out. But, if nothing else, this movie marks the maturation of computer graphics. It might mark the first time that awesome computer graphics has been used to tell a story (no matter how flawed) solidly rooted in a strong sense of reality (no matter how artificial).
As a big budget commercial release there's been lots of movie reviews for this title. It will be interesting to see how, and if, the anime community responds to it. Currently there are no reviews from my regular sources, and I would not be overly surprised if it is classed as non-anime and not reviewed.