DVD Review: Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children
Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children is a computer animated action-fantasy film based on a popular video game. Those three different elements (action, CGI, game adaptation) often lure me in with such promise, only to fall away at the last moment and drop me into the pit of so-bad-it's-good, or even the dreaded chasm of so-bad-it's-just-bad. Thank fuck, then, that Advent Children actually comes through, showing everyone else how it's done.
When it comes to making a video game adaptation, the brains behind Final Fantasy have obviously discovered the best route to take: don't. Advent Children is instead a cinematic sequel to a video game, bypassing all the problems of translating the story of a game to screen – the kind of mutilation that makes adapting a novel look like remaking another movie. Computer games have the potential to span simply enormous stories, wandering all over the place. While in a novel this might distract from the central premise, the central premise of a game involves user interaction. Exploration, both physically and through the plot, can be a huge part of the fun. The Final Fantasy games are profound examples of this, a typical instalment requiring a good forty or so hours to play from start to finish, often fleshing out an entire world in the process. It's a stroke of minor genius to take that as the first step, and then use it as a setting for a relatively very simple story.
This is also exactly the kind of interaction between the video game and movie industries that I can approve of. It's not a license being sold to a studio, but a group of people who, from the games they've made, have extensive experience in producing exhilarating, achingly beautiful computer animation, and want to put it on the silver screen. Of course, their first attempt, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, did away with much of what made the games so brilliant – for example, rather than a unique, highly imaginative fantasy world, the movie was set in a futuristic America. It felt like the Final Fantasy 'feel' was diluted to try and give it mass appeal (and instead was extinguished in the process). With Advent Children, it's clear that lessons have been learned. This movie is obviously intended for consumption by existing fans rather than as a means of extending the games' market, and it feels like something made by people who love the ideas they're expressing as much the people they're making it for.
Maybe I should mention that I haven't actually played Final Fantasy 7, although I am a huge fan of several other of the FF games, and like any gamer, I know little bits about it – for example how Sepiroth is carefully built up into one of the most memorable video game villains of all time, and how (most prolific spoiler on the Internet:) Aeries dies. So the simple story for Advent Children is doubly effective. We don't need to know the ins and outs of the whole FF7 world (and if the FF games I've played are any indication, there's likely to be ins and outs up the wazoo) to understand that stopping Sepiroth from coming back is probably a good idea, and maybe our hero needs to come to terms with Aeris being dead. And that's the plot. Oh but, how does it all play out? Well...
Advent Children has helped me to finally make peace with CGI. I've long been wondering just what the purpose of computer animation is, looking to see it do something different, that no other medium could quite get right. Looking at some computer animations, with their awkward-moving, weightless characters, bereft of personality, I can't help but think they would have been better off getting some artists to draw them by hand in each frame. (This isn't a blanket accusation, Toy Story 2 always, always makes me cry, and Brad Bird's The Incredibles is visually brilliant). But now, with Advent Children, I have finally seen what that something different is. It is sword fights on motorcycles.
In no other medium could you make a high-speed motorcycle chase that was also a sword fight. At least, not as convincingly and dynamically as the one in Advent Children. Yes, I called Advent Children an action-fantasy film above, because action is definitely what drives it forward. And not just any action: flawlessly choreographed, lightning fast, gravity defying, out-of-this-world action.
A lot of the time these days, I have trouble forcing myself to watch action films. Every director in the world seems to have gone down with Action-Scene Over-Direction Syndrome (ASODS for short). Christopher Nolan, I'm looking at you: an epilepsy-inducing barrage of close-ups is not exciting; it just leaves the audience with no idea of what's going on. So refreshing then, to see rapidly edited fight scenes where you can actually make out what's happening. And what's happening are things that make the most dynamic parts of the Matrix Trilogy look like pro-wrestling. 'Anything goes', was apparently director Tetsuya Nomura's motto for Advent Children. Don't worry about whether it looks realistic, worry about whether it looks cool. And it works extremely well. The images may be completely unrealistic, but they are also completely convincing. The characters have weight and substance to them, even as they leap up into the scaffold of an unfinished skyscraper, or get sent flying by a single blow.
The Final Fantasy games are part of something that is very important to me: what I often think of as 'true' fantasy – living up to the full promise of the word. Not orcs and castles and the same tired tropes, but anything you can conceive of, anything that will fit into the story. Finding a neatly crafted pearl of that stuff in Advent Children causes me to perhaps wax a bit too lyrical. Basically a soapy, slightly melodramatic story featuring prolonged and flamboyant action scenes, I'm sure that those who can't help but be cynical and/or refined will have a hard time swallowing Advent Children down. But those who are quite happy just to see sheer bravura of imagination will lap it up.