Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children

"Are we having fun yet?"
-Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children-

"Dilly Dally Shilly Shally."

A fair question and good description.

Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic indulges in a look at the computer animated film Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (2005) with a good degree of frivolity. Dilly dally shilly shally is about right. In full disclosure, I'm afraid to say, I simply have no strong connection to this film or franchise. I have no adoration, love, understanding or really any basic knowledge of the video game on which the film is based at all. Having said this, it may be unfair of me to judge it with no proper frame of reference at all. Is ignorance bliss? I was about to find out.

Certainly it was bliss for this fan of science fiction to embrace the science-fiction heavy Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) while so many other fans of the video game rejected it and were essentially appalled that Square Pictures would dare use the name Final Fantasy at all. And yes, galled, that the company would not offer even a remote concept or inkling that the film was inspired by a game, of which the 2001 film shared absolutely no connection.

The photo-realism of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within resulted in the most expensive video game-inspired computer animated film ever made. It was also deemed a financial disaster, a gamble that failed miserably for Square Pictures. It was the kind of sinking ship of which director Josh Trank, Fox and the latest iteration of Fantastic Four (2015) could relate. It tanked though may not have seemed quite as ugly as this summer's fantastic disaster.

In fairness, on the creative front, but clearly at a price, Square set the standard and opened up new doors to computer animation as a result of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.

Perhaps suffering a good degree of fan backlash Square, turned Square Enix, went back to the drawing board or at least the video game board for its next inspired film attempt. This one, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, would be genuinely inspired by the game and its characters. Though, in truth, given its more modest budget size Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children qualifies not as a film but an OVA (Original Video Animation) in Japanese anime circles.

So it should also come as no surprise that the film was directed by Tetsuya Nomura, a prolific video game animator, designer and director.

Nomura's involvement in the video games included Final Fantasy V, VI, VII, VIII, X, XI, XIII, XV and much more as well as his significant contributions to the popular Kingdom Hearts series. Nomura was the heir apparent to this mission for Square Enix. He would restore order and balance to a role-playing video game universe and fan base seemingly maligned by the studio's previous misstep into actual science fiction. To some degree the hope was to potentially right a perceived wrong or so it seemed by getting the franchise back to sci-fi fantasy.

Some would complain that Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was somewhat impenetrable or nonsensical despite my efforts to defend it (covered in a review of the film over at The Film Connoisseur). So the question is, would a layman like myself with positively no connection historically to the video game, Final Fantasy VII, of which this is a movie sequel years after the events of the game, appreciate a film or simply be lost?

This film, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children Complete is also apparently complete and even more thorough in aiding viewer understanding of the film's dense world.

Many film experts would submit that if a film didn't hold your attention in the first ten minutes, it was likely failing. Of course, we all know that general rule doesn't always hold true as a hard and fast fact. In the world of cinema traditional expectations don't always hold firm.

Narratives are not always delivered in a linear fashion and the hook doesn't always happen in the first ten minutes. A good example of this, for me personally, was The Matrix. That film didn't come together for me until the film's final act and just blew me away, but I had difficulty with it for a good portion of the film simply because it was so revolutionary and so different.

Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, also, did not hook me in the early going. I didn't have a clue. It was something like the Japanese/ anime (though not technically)/ sci-fi equivalent of David Lynch's Dune (1984). And for some that's a compliment.

Like the aforementioned Dune, visually I was in awe, particularly with the vistas of this sprawling epic. Surprisingly, character animation for this film was not far off from Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and that's impressive given its OVA status. It was as comparable to today's popular Assassin's Creed franchise game or even the release of The Polar Express (2004). It was aesthetically very much within that landscape and it was indeed beautiful or pleasing to the eye.

Sadly, to me, the story was all rather nonsensical. The visuals are forced to compensate and do so remarkably well. Images and sequences were profoundly moving as was the music and the English dub. My senses were generally mesmerized enough to remain with the film.

But I suspect, truth be told, Final Fantasy: Advent Children VII will be enjoyed that much more by those familiar with the series franchise. The uninitiated should certainly be aware the film will challenge you as a result of your unfamiliarity with the players and the story.

Good guy protagonist Cloud Strife versus evil antagonist Sephiroth keeps the concept pretty straightforward. A big sword. Excuse me---a BIG ASS sword. A deadly virus called Geostigma. A meteor. Cell phones. Lifestream. Cool guns. Cool cycles---but nobody touches Kaneda's bike from Akira (1988). Cool aircraft. Smoke monsters. A giant Kaiju. Strange, mythical, colorful beasts. In particular, a talking cat-like creature that actually rides around on a red-orange, lion-like beast. Yeah, this is bizarre stuff. Other general crazy fantasy/sci-fi concepts flit about.

Generally, the whole thing is amazing to look at with its juxtaposition of styles, colors and period dress mixed with fantasy. Close-ups of digital free flowing hair set against glorious landscapes and three dimensional backdrops are breathtaking and will delight the eyes. The mind, meanwhile, is taxed by a story that genuinely requires a much sounder understanding of the Final Fantasy world. My very cursory or surface understanding of the characters proved to be quite disadvantageous. It made little sense to me.

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was a much more satisfying stand alone story. My general ignorance of Final Fantasy did not work to my detriment. Knowledge of the franchise simply was not a required asset. Like Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex, this Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children is a much more complex component to a greater story arc.

Having a basic understanding of the Laughing Man or even the Puppet Master within the Ghost In The Shell mythology makes a difference. Being dropped into a twenty-six episode series would have a decidedly adverse effect on a viewer with no foundation. Final Fantasy: Advent Children is likely much more rewarding to longtime fans of the franchise and video game series. It's that simple.

There is plenty of sound and fury in points for the action-minded. There is no shortage of weapons fire, but much of it seems to occur with little consequence. Death? What's that? I've rarely seen so much happening yet have so little significance and mean nothing. Nothing ever seems at stake. Where are the consequences? It's hard to believe there is an audience hungry for this material. But then people loved the Twilight saga too and The Hunger Games so who am I? One thing it did not do for me was inspire me to the video game on which it is based.

One sequence was visually special. A group of heroes ride around, fly around and battle against a giant creature. There are no rules. Physics are completely defied including how the cycles pivot and turn. We never really see their wheels in those sequences. It plays like The Avengers, but with even less sense or point. That's not saying much.

The final showdown itself is a kinetic scene of flying and fighting. The sequence is so fast and so wild that it's actually difficult to make out the action. It's simply way too much. It's a bit of a mess really---a whole lot of dilly dally shilly shally. Whatever that means.

But that quote from Steve Martin to John Candy in Planes, Trains And Automobiles (1987) kept coming to mind. "And by the way, you know, when you're telling these little stories? Here's a good idea - have a point! It makes it so much more interesting for the listener!" The same rules apply here on film, which is why being a fan must add significant value here. Please tell me if I'm wrong? But I do believe the informed viewer might have a more satisfying experience.

Someone watching Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) might fair better having seen Twin Peaks (1990-1991) the TV series and so on.

So the same holds dramatically true for Final Fantasy: Advent Children. It's a disaster without any foreknowledge or more importantly passion for this genre material.

Blu-Ray.com makes the point. Writer Dustin Somner sees the Final Fantasy VII game itself as something of a "Holy Grail" in the gaming world. We certainly reflect on the title from two different perspectives. Somner dubbed the film "an engaging experience from beginning to end." I might submit with caution that I did remain with the film, but my engagement was at times limited. Some material was even disengaging. Somner noted the script was "emotionally dense" and "rich with creativity." I'll grant you the latter but I did not find myself emotionally invested.

This next segment from Somner speaks volumes of his viewpoint as a fan. "For those of you who've never played the "Final Fantasy VII" video game, I'd still recommend Advent Children Complete as a worthwhile way to spend two hours of your time. Some of the plot elements may be a little confusing, and the emotional impact of the relationships between characters in the film will appear somewhat ambiguous, but the plot of the film still stands as a worthy entry in anime filmmaking and the creators did a nice job paying service to the fans, while maintaining a worthwhile experience for the uninitiated." The experience here is indeed relative more so than some films conceived upon previously existing properties. Somner does note "the laws of physics clearly don't apply." Amen. But noting this film could garner "new recruits" ... "if all anime could look this good" is simply too much. Delivering a film with a strong story is essential. It must be more than a mere demo video for an electronics store and sometimes it felt exactly this way.

Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children is an ambitious and gorgeously rendered computer animation for a targeted niche audience. There is no question about the efforts and care that went into this Square Enix work. What I find so amazing is how someone, like Nomura, can be so fully immersed in and dedicated to this world. It's imaginative if not exactly inviting. It is ironically saddled with the stigma of being tied very much to the Final Fantasy VII world. I suspect gamer fans will adore this film. Am I wrong to assume that? Others with absolutely no interest or understanding of that universe may well find the film rather trying and impenetrable. If I wasn't completely puzzled, I was sometimes thinking the proverbial "huh?" or fighting every fiber of my being not to fall asleep. It took some degree of time to get through this one. I had high hopes I would love this picture but alas it was a terrible let down as beautiful as the animation may be in parts. Action sequences are so hyperkinetic my camera could not even take a proper shot of those images. I was hopeful the story elements would begin to coalesce around a coherent narrative at some point, like The Matrix, but that expectation never felt fulfilled.

Shockingly, this film was reviewed better than Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within in some quarters. I can only imagine such analysis came by way of fans of the game or mythology. Both Final Fantasy film attempts faired poorly at Rotten Tomatoes.com with Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within receiving 44% and the film reviewed here receiving just 33%. The philosophically opaque Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within may be challenging, but I believe was a far more thoughtful and rewarding experience to the casual viewer with a brain for science fiction.

This may be Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children Complete (twenty-six minutes longer than the original cut and considered "a substantial improvement" according to the aforementioned review), but the experience feels incomplete to this newcomer. This is a visually interesting exercise but what else really? Something tells me this will likely be my final outing with the Final Fantasy series. The film seemed interminable at times. Though it pained me somewhat to do so, I made it through this film so I could report on it honestly to you and recommend to fan of the franchise only. I did so enjoy the digitally animated hair, but sadly I had no investment in the characters. The only investment was my time. Perhaps I was missing an understanding of the series, but taken entirely on its own it was not a satisfying experience. This would not be my final fantasy, but that story would be offering way too much information.

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