E3: The Spirits Within Impressions

[05.18.01] » Welcome to the real world.

   While only two playable games were available to try out on Square's E3 floor, the company did offer select attendees the chance to take an look at an extended version of their upcoming film, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. The GIA was on hand, and we've got a plot synopsis of what was shown, as well as general impressions on the quality of the film itself. Spoilers ahead, proceed at your own risk!

   Unlike previous trailers of the film which rapidly cut back and forth between images and characters, Square displayed roughly fifteen minutes of mostly contiguous picture. The first section was the longest, seemingly set near the beginning of the film, and revolved around Dr. Aki Ross's search for "spirits" in a desolate wasteland patrolled by translucent alien monsters.

   The sequence begins as Dr. Ross (Ming Na Wen) descends into urban ruins from an air transport. Clearly, this is our world, and some sort of cataclysmic event has occurred, leaving buildings damaged but standing, and cars littering the street. Ross activates a wrist computer, which locates a single lone weed in the ruins. Ross begins work on extracting the weed with complex equipment, but is soon interrupted by troops demanding an explanation for what she is doing. Ross continues her work undaunted, and the troops soon have bigger concerns - translucent, glowing aliens start to attack. These creatures are initially invisible to the naked eye, but can be detected with sensors and begin to show themselves as they are hit with weapons fire.

   Ross finishes collecting the plant, and the entire group begins a retreat. They are successful in returning to the ship, at which point the troops remove their concealing armor: the officer in charge of the troops is Grey Edwards (Alex Baldwin), who Dr. Ross clearly has some sort of history with.

   We then move to a base on Manhattan Island - a huge barrier surrounds a good chunk of the island, but the rest is wasteland, like the rest of the world. Dr. Ross is instructed to read a diary passage by her mentor, Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland), regarding the true nature of the human spirit. Sid suggests that their work is misunderstood and dangerous, and instructs Ross to destroy her notes - everything should be kept in her head.

   Dr. Ross, again aided by Grey and his crew, out on another quest for one of the eight spirits - this time the object is in the pack of a dead soldier, located in the desert. Aki acquires the object, and the team again retreats, but a soldier is killed by an alien: some form of energy is removed from his body by an alien, and devoured. When Dr. Ross returns to the air transport, soldiers attempt to put her under custody. Grey's team puts down the mutiny, but Aki is shot in the process. A medical scan reveals that she contains some form of unknown alien energy herself.

   A complex escape sequence ensues, as the air transport evades a huge alien by flying through ruins. The ship returns to Manhattan, where Sid tries to save Aki's life - at this point, he tells us, she has only six of the eight spirits within her, and the seventh must be immediately implanted. Sid convinces Grey that Aki needs help to stabilize her during the implant procedure. He puts Grey to sleep, and Grey finds himself on the surface of an alien world with Aki, a place she says she's been dreaming about for months.

   We then view a brief sequence in General Hein (James Woods') office, where the general is informed that Aki has evaded capture, thanks to Grey. Hein says that both Dr. Ross and Grey must now be captured.

   Lastly, the film cuts to a burning hangar, where an alien is attacking as Aki tries to escape in an air transport. Grey says he'll hold the creature off while Aki escapes, at the cost of his own life, but Aki waits until Grey can board, and Aki, Grey, and Sid escape the Manhattan complex.

   The first thing that should be noted about the overall film is how superb the animation is. The characters are not quite good enough to fool a dedicated observer into believing that they're real, but simply watching the film, it's almost impossible not to see the characters at fully human actors - this has less to do with the detail of the models than it does with the superb way they move and react to events. Not even the most detailed motion capture looks this smooth, although a few small details, such as lip movements, didn't ring quite true. Still, in the graphical aspect alone, Square has made a giant leap forward.

   More troubling is the premise of the film: such realistic characters are ill-served by long passages about the true nature of the soul and bizarre quests for "spirits" to be implanted in human hosts. The actors deal with the lines admirably, and the dialog itself is fairly reasonable... but the subject matter seems at once overly silly and far too weighty. The characters are also somewhat bland, which seems the fault of the script as much as anything. Certainly actors like Steve Buscemi and Ving Rhames are capable of bringing a good deal of color to their roles, but their characters are primarily reduced to shooting aliens and yelling about impending danger.

There can be no final verdict on the film until a final cut is released, but at this point it can definitely said that Square has achieved their goal, as far as making CG characters realistic enough to carry a dramatic narrative. What remains to be seen is whether Square will provide these characters with a narrative worth carrying.

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Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
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