It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Other movies have been made entirely on computers, but ''Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within'' is the first to attempt realistic human characters. Not Shrek with his trumpet ears, but the space soldier Gray Edwards, who looks so much like Ben Affleck that I wonder if royalties were involved. The movie, named after a famous series of video games, creates Planet Earth, circa 2065, where humans huddle beneath energy shields and wraithlike aliens prowl the globe. The film tells a story that would have seemed traditional in the golden age of Asimov, van Vogt and Heinlein. But science fiction fans of that era would have wept with joy at the visuals, and they grabbed me, too. I have a love of astonishing sights, of films that show me landscapes and cityscapes that exist only in the imagination, and ''Final Fantasy'' creates a world that is neither live action nor animation, but some parallel cyberuniverse.
The characters live in that cyberspace, too. Not for an instant do we believe that Dr. Aki Ross, the heroine, is a real human. But we concede she is lifelike, which is the whole point. She has an eerie presence that is at once subtly unreal and yet convincing. Her movements (which mirror the actions of real actors) feel about right, and her hair blows convincingly in the wind. The first closeup of her face and eyes is startling because the filmmakers are not afraid to give us a good, long look--they dare us not to admire their craft. If Aki is not as real as a human actress, she is about as real as a Playmate who has been retouched to a glossy perfection.
The story involves a struggle by Aki and a band of Deep Eyes (futuristic human warriors) to defend the survivors of an alien invasion of Earth. Humans live inside energy shields that protect some of the largest cities and venture out cautiously, armored and armed, to do battle with the aliens, who look like free-form transparent monster nightmares; I was reminded of the water creature in ''The Abyss.'' The aliens can infect humans with their virus or essence, and Aki (voice of Ming-Na) thinks she can defeat them by channeling the eight ''spirit waves'' of Earth--or Gaia, the planetary soul.
Her allies include Gray Edwards (voice of Alec Baldwin), who is the leader of the Deep Eyes troop, and Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland), her wise old teacher. Her other teammates include the pilot Neil (Steve Buscemi) and the fighters Ryan (Ving Rhames) and Jane Proudfoot (Peri Gilpin). Leading the forces of evil is Gen. Hein (James Woods), who wants to blast the aliens with his high-tech orbiting space cannon. Those who find a parallel between Hein's cannon and George W. Bush's missile shield will find it easy to assign Aki and her friends to the environmentalists; they believe the Earth's mantle sits above a Gaia-sphere containing the planet's life force, and that if the cannon destroys it, not only the aliens but all human life will die. One of Aki's early expeditions is to find, rescue and tend for a tiny green growing thing that has survived in the wasteland caused (I think) when a giant meteorite crashed into Earth and released the aliens it contained.