Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children is not remarkable for its storyline or even its imagery but for how completely and shamelessly it panders to a very specific audience and gets away with it. Like the Magic Theater in Steppenwolf, it is Not For Everyone — only the people who played the video game and are dying to see something with their favorite characters in it just one more time, even if it was made with near-contempt for said audience. For those of us who don’t know Cloud Strife from Sagara Sanosuke, FFVII:AC is essentially a kabuki performance. It’s highly stylized, elegant to watch, and utterly impenetrable unless you go in armed with the footnotes — or, again, unless you’re a fan.
Come to think of it, if you are a fan, you’re probably not reading this to get an idea of whether or not it’s worth watching; you’ve probably already seen it. FFVII:AC is practically critic-proof, and the evidence is right there in the opening title card: “To those who loved this world, and the friendly company therein, this reunion is for you.” If you are a fan, nothing I write here will change your mind, and I anticipate finding a burning Sephiroth on my front lawn for my efforts. I approached the movie as a foreigner, a man in a country where he does not know the history, the culture, or the folkways, and I suspect for that precise reason I found myself hopelessly lost.
Former mercenary soldier Cloud gets dragged forcibly out of self-imposed retirement
to deal with a new menace to his world that may have roots in the old.
For everyone else, let me backtrack and explain. Once upon a time, there was a phenomenally successful video game called, as you might guess, Final Fantasy VII. It garnered a massive fanbase in both the US and in Japan, and remained popular long after other games of its ilk had fallen out of print. Part of that seems to have been because of the intricate storyline, which merged cyberpunk action with high fantasy, and the characters that inhabited it. When word leaked out that the game designers were planning a short animated sequel to the game, the reaction was near-hysteria. The short eventually ballooned to the length of a feature film and was delayed for almost two years, and when it finally appeared in Japan it didn’t take long for bootlegged copies to show up domestically. People not part of the fandom were (and are) downright intimidated by the level of mania surrounding the movie.
How to review something like this? Without having fifty hours to spare to play the game the film was based on (Final Fantasy VII), I dug up what information I could on the plot (thank you, Wikipedia), familiarized myself with the likes of Cloud and Aerith and so on, and sat down to watch. The last thing I want people to think is that I came to this movie with a grudge; I’m not someone who heard cursorily about them animated Japanese cartoon thingies and is now dismissing the whole effort out of hand. And while there is a recap of some of the game’s key points at the beginning of the movie, it’s like listening to someone else tell you about their summer vacation: you hadda be there. For outsiders, this is deeply frustrating, since nothing short of the Second Coming could live up to the screaming generated in the wake of this thing.
Enemies come for Cloud's girl Tifa, and he's ultimately galvanized into protecting
the things he loves, while the audience wonders what the hell took him so long.
The plot, as best as I can relate it without getting hopelessly lost in footnotes, involves Cloud — the hero from the original game — a few years after the conclusion of the game’s storyline. In the original game he was a mercenary working for a kind of eco-terrorist outfit trying to stop a greedy megacorp from destroying the world; now he’s running a delivery service in one of many ruined cities. He is suffering from some kind of invariably fatal disease called Geostigma that apparently causes the sufferer to mope a lot and act sullen. One day he crosses paths with three folks who believe Cloud knows something about their missing mother, and right about there is where all my comprehension for the goings-on completely evaporated. The vast majority of the movie is one very badly-filmed action scene where a lot of things happen and few things make sense, punctuated by people standing around and making angry speeches.
The problem is not simply that the movie assumes knowledge about the game on the part of the audience, but the screenwriters have compounded that by confusing plotting with busywork. There are so many unexplained (or assumed) comings and goings and happenstances and insinuations that by the halfway mark I was ready to turn off the sound and just watch the movie as an effects demo reel. Mixed in with all this is a good deal of mystical nonsense and tendentious preaching about the environment masquerading as plot, the usual fail-safe fallback for someone who wants to make an Important Statement without actually thinking about it. It’s bad enough that all of this means absolutely nothing to someone who hasn’t played the game; it’s worse that the movie hardly even seems to care. Again, I’m guessing that was scarcely the point — they wanted to extend on a story that had drawn a devoted audience, nothing more than that, but at the cost of locking out everyone who wasn’t there to begin with.
Because so much of the movie's impact is rooted in the game that precedes it,
newcomers to the Final Fantasy mythos in general are liable to be wholly at sea.
But doesn’t it look great? Sure it does; the programmers and graphic designers slaved for years to put this thing together. The future cityscapes look like inhabitable places, not just backdrops. There’s not a shot in the film that doesn’t cry out to be blown up to the size of a billboard. That said, what they choose to do with all this splendor is self-defeating: When the camera zooms around like it’s on the end of a bungee cord and stops on a dime, it’s not thrilling; it’s distracting. Nothing feels like it has any weight. Continuity is not merely ignored but outright sneered at. The characters themselves also look faintly off — there’s always something weird about the eyes and the mouths, like they’ve all come from the same doll factory. (That and I had to ask how they managed to fight when they had their hair hanging in their face half the time.)
The movie’s video-game heritage also makes the logistics of the action needlessly confusing. Example: In one of the early battles, Cloud is attacked by giant wolf-like creatures that turn to smoke when he hits them with his sword. Did that mean he was killing them? Or were they just doing that to avoid getting hit in the first place? And what’s the point of switching arbitrarily between slow-motion and high-speed when we can barely figure out what’s going on either way, and hardly give a darn? Another fight scene has people milling around randomly in the background for what feels like minutes on end when sanity dictates they should have cleared out a long time ago. The movie scarcely seems to care about such niggardly matters, and it’s next to impossible to figure things out via context as nothing is explained or lingered on long enough to be coherent.
The movie's fight scenes come so fast and are so spastically assembled that
nothing seems to have weight and it's next to impossible to tell what's going on.
The problem is that CGI, like conventional hand-drawn animation or even live-action itself, is just a way to tell a story. It’s a medium, and in the words of Ernie Kovacs on TV, it is now definitely a medium in the sense that it is neither rare nor well done. CGI is everywhere, and most of it is lousy — in fact, even when it’s “good”, it’s usually still lousy, because it’s often used to pave over a weak story. When CGI doesn’t try to mimic reality obsessively — think of Malice@Doll and, to a degree, Appleseed — it actually accomplishes more, because we’re not being asked to compare what we see to something real. When we see Cloud and Sephiroth in close-up pushing back amazingly realistic swaths of hair, and then we pop back to see them flying around like toys on the end of lanyards, it doesn’t click. At least when people did the impossible in The Matrix we had some idea why it was like that.
I gave high marks to the original Final Fantasy CGI movie for two reasons: One, it was the first time anything of that scale had been attempted, so I went easy on them for breaking new ground. Two, for better or worse, it told an original story — and while a fair amount of that story had the same mumbo-jumbo arbitrariness of many of the games, it worked pretty well on its own terms and didn’t need a guidebook to be understood. With FF, I have a hard time seeing anything other than sheer greed at work here: the filmmakers rake in a pile of dough milking the characters for all they’re worth, and the fans get to see some new material. Strange how the same fans are willing to write off Disney’s direct-to-video sequel productions, which are no less cynically assembled, but get terribly irate if you claim FFVII:AC is anything less than a cash-in.
It’s not as if there’s no precedent for an upscale movie targeted exclusively at a narrow fan audience. The X-Files movie was made largely for the fans. Serenity had virtually no existence outside of the Firefly fanbase (and if you ask me, that was at least in part due to one of the worst marketing campaigns I’ve ever seen for a theatrically-released movie). But even those were at least remotely coherent to people who hadn’t paid their dues. Fans who talk about the movie ask heated questions like: Where did Cloud get his new Limit Break maneuver to defeat Sephiroth’s final attack? My questions were just as heated, but far simpler: Who were these characters? Why was I supposed to care about them? What the hell was going on?