Final Fantasy 7: Advent Children

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 04/25/06 10:42:25

"You'll have some fancy CGI to look at while you're bored and confused."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

I suppose if they can make a “NeverEnding Story II,” they can make a “Final Fantasy VII.”

The whole “Final Fantasy VII” thing confuses me to no end, and I figure I better mention this right up front. I have never played a “Final Fantasy” video game. I do not know what happens in any of these games. I have no idea why “Final Fantasy VII” - not “III” or “VI” or “IX” - is the one sequel game that everyone loves so much that not only have they made spin-off games from that sequel game (instead of calling them “Final Fantasy XVI” or something, it’s “Before Crisis: Final Fantasy VII” and the like), but now they’ve made a spin-off movie, “Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children,” which is a sequel to the game “Final Fantasy VII” and not at all a sequel to “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within,” which was another movie based on the game series, although that one was more of a loose spin-off than a full adaptation or a direct sequel.

My brain hurts from trying to tie it all together, and I haven’t even gotten to the movie yet.

Here’s the thing: “Advent Children” was made entirely for hardcore fans of “Final Fantasy VII” - and nobody else. And watching it, I’m certain that those well familiar with that game will very much enjoy seeing this film. In fact, the filmmakers include a loving dedication to the fans who have stuck with the story all these years; translated from the original Japanese, it reads: “To those who loved this world and knew friendly company therein: This Reunion is for you.”

“Reunion” is a very important word. “Advent Children” makes only the slightest effort to bring non-fans up to speed, but because the clumsy, rapid-fire exposition narration doesn’t quite do the best job, watching the rest of the film feels like going to another school’s ten-year reunion. Sure, you can get through the evening, but you don’t recognize the faces, you don’t get the in-jokes, you’re bored out of your skull.

If this were the sequel to a movie, I could possibly forgive the lack of consideration given to the newcomer, perhaps under the guise of a “continuing cinematic saga” or whatever. But this is a sequel to a long, complicated role playing game that’s pushing its ninth birthday, manufactured for a game console that is very much outdated. It’s not like you can run down to your local video store and be all caught up in an hour or two. The only possible way to make the film successful is to make it accessible to all, which it decidedly does not.

But I gave it a try anyway. “Advent Children,” from what I could gather, takes place in some sci-fi otherworld where some planet (ours? not?) is powered by a giant mass of energy, called the Lifestream, which surrounds the globe. Apparently, some mega corporation found a way to suck power from the Lifestream, which led to wars and devastation, capped off by the planet itself destroying those which did it harm. (There might have also been an alien invasion tossed in there or something.)

This all happens in the prologue (one so poorly written that the narrator actually gets off track, then says a casual “anyway…” and carries on), and the story proper picks up two years after all of this, with a major city in ruins. A good number of people, mainly children, are stricken with a disease called “Geostigma,” which apparently has nothing to do with the shame of driving an inexpensive compact car. A couple of heroes run a delivery company and also a makeshift orphanage. Then comes a mystery man, a search for a major supply of Lifestream energy, and the secret about one character’s past. Or something.

It’s all a mess, but surely the action will fill in the gaps, yes? Not really. Although the film is wallpapered in action sequences and mammoth fight scenes, none of them thrill. This isn’t just for lack of being into the story, either (although that is a problem - the plot is just a loose thread tying the various car chases and sword fights together, and the blandness of it wears thin all too quickly); the action fails on a purely visceral level. No cheap thrills here, no matter how much they try.

Why? Because like “The Spirits Within” before it, “Advent Children” is entirely animated by computer, the intent being to create as lifelike a world and inhabitants as possible. And like the previous film, this one’s fairly gorgeous, filled with stunning visuals that seem to have been created simply to show off the software of those who made it and the hardware of those who watch it.

But here’s the catch: making everything so artificial removes the element of danger from the stuntwork. Sure, we can watch as heroes and villains leap off racing motorcycles and over explosions, but there’s no meat to any of it. The animation intends to approximate reality, meaning that instead of taking us somewhere new and allowing these cartoon creatures to defy physics in wonderful ways; and instead of forming an exaggerated reality in which hyperbole reigns supreme; heck, instead of merely thinking up some cool move we’ve never seen before; the filmmakers merely give us CGI versions of things we’ve already watched in countless John Woo flicks. The problem, then, is that the cartoon versions of these action set pieces become rather dull - unlike seeing the exact same thing performed by real stunt people (the thrill seeing an actual human being defy death, even if aided by the special effects crew), the animation forces a lack of immediacy. There’s no threat - they’re just cartoons. (And this doesn’t even include the fact that every action bit runs on a few minutes too long, eventually losing the viewers instead of wowing them.)

Of course, perhaps I’d be more wrapped up in the action if there were anything to the story. By getting involved with richly detailed characters and the drama of a story well told, we get wrapped up in worrying about the consequences: will he leap to safety in time? With nothing here to carry us through, we’re just stuck watching animators recreate their favorite car chase scenes from better movies, followed by what I’m assuming is some reference to something that happened once in the video game.

From all this, it’s easy to see why, despite the immense popularity of the game and the seemingly easy marketability the familiar title provides, Sony opted to wait well over a year before importing this Stateside, and even then they merely dump it with a direct-to-video release. This is third-rate sci-fi cobbled together with familiar elements of a video game some people like, and that’s not nearly enough to work as a film. Sure, it may play out nicely as a valentine to the game’s fans, but to lovers of movies, it’s little more than a franchise tie-in, easily ignored and instantly forgotten.

Update (4/25/06): I’ve already gotten a handful of emails about my review, most of them belonging in the “I haven’t seen the movie yet but it’s Final Fantasy so it must be great and you suck ass” category. One very helpful (and polite and intelligent - flamers and complainers, take note!) email came from Johnathon Brown, who writes: “SquareEnix (not Sony) mentioned long before release that Advent Children would be direct-to-DVD and that it was geared almost entirely to those that played Final Fantasy VII.” Which pretty much negates the whole Sony-dumping-it notion of my final paragraph.

Brown also goes on to remind me that the DVD includes a collection of cut scenes from “Final Fantasy VII.” After watching the film, I did check out that feature, which pretty much runs down the entire game story in lengthy, dialogue-heavy role-playing clips. As a non-fan, the presentation was too uninteresting: it’s nothing but clips, set to the film’s musical score, and it’s kinda like watching your friend play a video game while you sit around with nothing else to do. I turned it off after a couple of minutes. There’s also a detailed making-of feature on the second disc in the DVD set, which I did not get to watch.

But then, this only emphasizes my point. In order to enjoy a movie, it should stand on its own, yes? “Advent Children” does not. As I already said above, it’ll work with fans of the game, but if you need to include multiple DVD extras just to explain what’s going on, then you’ve failed as a storyteller.

Update no. 2 (4/26/06): And now, another reader, Michael Ramirez, chimes in with smart, courteous comments that prove that does well in the putting-me-to-shame department. After making some comments about how I’m not too fair in judging it as a sequel (he says I picked up on enough plot that I shouldn’t have complained as much as I did), he writes:

“The other thing you seemed to rant about were the fight scenes and how they’re just remakes of live action movies... Seriously, I think this is one of those times where a line like ‘What were you smoking?’ would be fitting. … Defy Physics? In every single fight scene there is physics being defied. All the other reviews on Rotten Tomatoes speak of this, I don’t understand how you don’t see it. I mean do you see what these 150 pound men do to those huge motorcycles? What about the scene where they launch Cloud into seemingly outer space? I’ve never seen stuff like that before. You didn’t mention anywhere how the camera angles in some of these fight scenes are fairly exciting, fast moving, and oddly placed, unlike their live action counterparts. At least put some key examples and comparisons in your review of where you’ve seen stuff like this before.”

And herein lies the problem. I wrote the review the day after watching the film - a viewing that was filtered with the glazed-over haze of terminal non-interest. So when it came time to write my review, I was relying on blurry memories and barely legible notes that read something along the lines of “car chase - long, boring.” Now, I could probably whip up some sloppy defense for myself, claiming that these were my honest reactions and memories of the movie (which they were) and that if the movie was any better, then I’d be remembering all the physics-defying that was on display, instead of focusing on the more mundane aspects (which is also true). But it’s my own fault for not only supporting my argument with the examples and comparisons that Ramirez notes as being shamefully absent, but also for being so eager to pound this one half-assed notion into the ground (especially when there are so many other problems that I could have discussed instead - even Ramirez laments the shabby voice acting and laughable dialogue). So I’m forced to concede to him on this issue, especially his remark about “cameras” being impossibly placed, which I regrettably overlooked before.

Out of humility, I’ll be keeping the original text of my review unchanged; after all, it is my first reaction to the film, fuzzy memories or no, and first reactions are always worth something. Besides, my opinion of “Advent Children” as a dull, cluttered, chaotic affair remains the same, and that’s the main point, right?

(A big thanks to Brown and Ramirez for their input in all of this.)

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