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Digital age 

Final Fantasy a summertime spectacle of special effects

Break out the Barcoloungers, summer has started at last. You might have been fooled into thinking summer was well under way, what with the mosquitoes carrying off small children and the Equinox and all. But Solstice be damned, this is America, and here, summer means just one thing: honest-to-God, balls-to-the-wall, blockbuster movies.

Now, after months suspended in spring limbo with high-gloss mediocrities like Pearl Harbor and well-oiled but ho-hum hype-machines like The Mummy Returns, we finally have one.

The folks who handicap hits in Hollywood might tend to view a film like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within as a bit of a dark horse. It has no appreciable star power (Alec Baldwin, Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames and others are present, but only in voice); it's animated but not by Disney or its digital pal, Pixar (usually a bad omen); and it's a feature film adaptation of a computer game, without in-the-flesh Super-Freak Angelina Jolie to keep things frisky. And Tomb Raider notwithstanding, the conventional wisdom long has held that, as far as games go, films travel best from big screen to small, not vice versa. It's easier to make a slick Sega game of X-Men or The Cider House Rules than it is to keep people awake through 90 minutes of Super Mario Brothers.

Final Fantasy could well change all that. Directed by the game's creator, Hironobo Sakaguchi, The Spirits Within is the first game-to-screen conversion that retains the original media. In other words, instead of dressing Final Fantasy up in live-action drag, CGI technology now has advanced to the point where an entire feature can be mounted using digital animation much like you'd see on the computer monitor.

Just how closely The Spirits Within resembles the phenomenally successful Final Fantasy game franchise narratively, I do not know. Playstations, Segas and other such mysterious devices being best left to the young and hand-eye coordinated. The plot certainly has the psuedomythic overtones and episodic organization typical of role-playing games, computer assisted or otherwise.

A beautiful scientist (voiced by Ming-Na Wen) and her elderly mentor travel to Earth with some space-toughs straight out of Aliens to save the ailing and now mostly deserted planet from otherworldly nogoodniks who apparently feed on the souls of the dead and are contaminating humans with a terminal case of Bad Vibes. Arbitrary and apocalyptic quests being the bread-and-butter of gaming, the heroes have to find the last of the Eight Spirits to reverse the unwholesome influence of the evil extraterrestrials and save the planet and our heroine (who is herself infected with alien soul-cooties) before a trigger happy general (James Woods, natch) blasts the planet with a king-size "bio-etheric" cannon, a cure presumably worse than the disease.

Confused? You bet. Fans of the game might be past masters of this material, but it's pretty dense going for the uninitiated. Even if you can't follow the film through its convoluted and sometimes seemingly random twists and flips (my tip: Don't try), Final Fantasy still has everything a movie needs to become a runaway summertime hit. That's partly because they decided not to leave anything out. The synopsis reads like a laundry list of contemporary sci-fi highlights (way-cool giant spaceship, check; bad-ass big-gun showdown, check; high-speed futurescape chase scene, check; eerie pursuit by hideous alien nemeses, check; hot babe confronts unimaginable evil, check ...). But mostly, it's a hit because of the unbelievable look of the film.

When it comes to blockbusters, especially in the summer, those in the know have learned never to underestimate the power of spectacle. Independence Day broke the bank as much because of its overwhelming visual effects as anything; so did Jurassic Park(s), and most every other film on the summertime Hit Parade, right on back to Star Wars and Jaws. You want to make a mint in the movies? Go with the visuals and hit 'em right in the eyes.

And visually, Final Fantasy is awesome. Perhaps the inevitable apotheosis of special effects filmmaking, the whole film is a special effect, and a spectacularly well-executed one at that. Rather than compositing synthetic and live-action elements into a single frame, juxtaposing the real and unreal, the entire experience is a fantasy, but one as internally authentic as the frankest documentary. Because they are stylistically of a piece with the beautiful and slightly surreal virtual environments through which they move, the digital actors are totally convincing.

In fact, it's almost creepy how quickly Final Fantasy sucks you into its artificial universe and how well it holds you there. Walking out of the theater, regular real people look downright weird by comparison. Literally unlike anything ever shown on the big screen, Final Fantasy should blow away even the most jaded genre fans, however unfazed by morphing monsters and digital dinosaurs, however inoculated against virtual mayhem on a grand scale they may be.

Will Final Fantasy prove as durable in the multiplex as it did on the console? It's hard to say. It's also unclear whether this unique, polyglot production (it was made in Honolulu with personnel from Japan, the U.S. and 22 other countries) is the Wave of the Future. There is a small tsunami of videogame adaptations on its way, most of them live-action (it would be nice, though, if the story could come off a little less, well, gamey), and if audiences respond to the novelty of straight-faced digital feature animation for big kids, there probably will be more experiments. But Sakaguchi's saga does embody the ways filmmakers and keyboard cowboys the world over are aggressively redefining entertainment for the new millennium. The boundaries between our mass media are definitely dissolving, and looking through Final Fantasy to the other side, it's a beautiful view.

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