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"Final Fantasy VII Advent Children": Fastest Blades in the East

As video games, aided by Hollywood talent and ever more realistic graphics, become increasingly cinematic, it is little surprise that film adaptations have grown in popularity. Or that they are almost uniformly awful. However, sometimes even Uwe Boll takes a vacation, and other stars are given the chance to shine. And shine they do on the sumptuously beautiful CGI tapestry of Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children.

Cloud on his hogPerhaps you recall the previous CGI Final Fantasy (FF) feature, The Spirits Within? I didn’t think so. That film quickly faded from consciousness when beneath the impressive visuals fans found little to do with the beloved game franchise, now approaching a third decade. That misstep is corrected in Advent Children (AC), which builds directly on the plot of the 1997 FFVII game. Although for those of us who haven’t completed our FF PhDs yet the convoluted space opera plot is rather opaque, and full of cameos from god only knows whom.

Never mind the who and the why though. Average Joes will still delight in the excellent animation and nonstop action. The entire third act of the film is one massive, relentless battle that should deliver the perfect high for thrill junkies.

As best I understand the story (wild guesses to follow), years ago the Shinra company found a way to harness the planet’s mystical energy known as the Lifestream, leading to an age of great comfort and prosperity and possible lawsuits from Lucasfilm. However, many worried this practice was damaging the planet, and conflict broke out. Eventually the planet itself lashed out via the Lifestream and ended the fighting by razing most of civilization.

Two years later man lives peacefully in a vaguely post-apocalyptic landscape, but many suffer from the incurable plague geostigma, caused by the planet. The violently unbalanced warrior Kadaj seeks to heal the disease and get revenge on the planet using some stored Lifestream energy. Feeling responsibility for the planet’s past suffering, Shinra president Rufus tries to recruit former elite Shinra soldier Cloud Strife to oppose Kadaj. Tired of combat and ailing from geostigma Cloud is reluctant, but his hand is forced when Kadaj plays pied piper and abducts scores of sick children, among them Cloud’s surrogate kids Marlene and Denzel.

Many of the film’s barely defined characters would be hard to tell apart if not for their outrageous coiffures (I have seen the future and investing in haircare products is good). The stoic Cloud has good intentions, but blames himself for the deaths of his best friend and lover in the previous war and fears no good will come of further conflict. However, standing behind him is the lovely and plucky Tifa Lockhart, who urges him to let go of the past and defend his adopted family. How deep their relationship runs is not clear, as romance is a minor footnote in the script.

Kadaj and Cloud fight for humanity's last bottle of mousseThe petulant and malicious Kadaj is a colorful but slightly girly villain, which is saying a lot in this crowd. Then there are at least half a dozen of Cloud’s buddies who miraculously materialize at random points to save his bacon. Each one gets a grand entrance that probably causes FF fans to swoon, but frankly in the words of young Denzel, “Who’s that guy? And that? And that?”

The Japanese voice acting is passable, though as one might expect from a video game rather clichéd and melodramatic. While Cloud expresses all the emotional range of Dolph Lundgren’s finest work, Kadaj camps it up with abandon.

AC beats the drum of environmentalism like many anime before it, but in a less insistent way than Miyazaki’s works. Shinra’s energy source is likely a metaphor for nuclear power, which is ironic as today’s Japan is so dependent on it.

AC‘s fight choreography is simply amazing, trumping Hollywood’s efforts at superhero battles from Blade to Matrix to X-Men and so on. The only problem is the action is shot at blinding speed, seldom giving the audience a chance to savor the moment. Among the many epic showdowns, Tifa’s very Matrix-like battle with Kadaj’s henchman Loz in a sunlit church and Cloud’s desperate climactic struggle with Kadaj stand out. The latter begins as a frantic motorcycle highway chase and ends with a wild swordfight on top of a crumbling skyscraper.

FF fans will find little to complain about the phenomenal art design directly inspired by the game. The male characters do tend to look slightly effeminate, but manage to ooze cool all the same. If the animation does resemble a game cut-scene, it is light years beyond any I’ve seen so far. Given a much smaller budget than what Pixar has to play with, the occasional stiffness of movement and simplified textures can be overlooked.

Cloud gives Tifa the cold shoulderThe score on the other hand is a bit forgettable, either very melodramatic orchestral pieces or during action scenes generic Matrix techno rock. I don’t know whether any of the material is lifted from the games, but Loz’s ringtone is certainly suggestive of such.

AC‘s most useful extra is “Reminiscence of Final Fantasy VII,” which contains all the main story scenes from the game and should really be watched before the film. Gamers will probably get a nostalgia buzz; I was just thankful for a better explanation of some of the film’s nebulous cameos.

Fully animated deleted scenes are offered on disc 2, but are so incredibly brief (none longer than a few seconds) that they’re hardly worth watching. Footage from the Venice Film Festival premiere makes it obvious how action-packed AC is by cutting out nearly all the action scenes, thereby reducing the film to 20 minutes.

The crown jewel is the fantastic making of feature “Distance,” easily the best I’ve ever seen for an anime film and right up there with Pixar’s output. This documentary delivers a half hour chock full of details on the challenge of a film adaptation, character and story insights, animation techniques, the score, and so on from director Tetsuya Nomura and other production staff recruited from the game series. I was sufficiently impressed that I didn’t really mind the absence of an art gallery and commentary.

There’s no need to sell Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children to FF fans. However, even those who connect “RPG” less with prophecies and spells than with Rambo will enjoy gorging themselves on all the sword/lazerplay they can handle. As for the story, well, I found it a good rule of thumb to root for the guys with the most outrageously flamboyant hair and attire. Because honestly, when you look that good, who needs to be evil?

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