A couple of weeks back… probably more by the time you stumble across this review whilst looking for something else Final Fantasy VII related… I did a post about video game based film adaptations and how they, quite often, suck a load of donkey balls. One such film that I mentioned not being all that great was Final Fantasy The Spirits Within. That film is often derided for being massively off base of what the Final Fantasy games were. Which was pretty amazing seeing as it was made by Square, the makers of the games. Although looking back they sure did think they were the dogs bollocks around then. So, what happens when they not only make a Final Fantasy film that mirrors the games but is actually a sequel to one of the games? Their most highly praised Final Fantasy at that. Click the link for my review which is sure to piss off a few fanboys.
Let me start off by saying that I really like Final Fantasy VII. It’s a fine game and was quite the obsession for me in my teenage years. I was ready to consume anything Final Fantasy related back then. These days, not so much. I recently purchased the game again on Steam, despite still having the original PS1 disc, and have been quite pleased to find that, despite the obvious technology ageing, the game is still really damn good. It’s not my favourite in the series but it’s managed to hook me right in again and brought back some good memories. I probably finished the game about 3 times over back when it came out originally, so I know the setting and characters well. Which makes me wonder, how does anyone that knows nothing about Final Fantasy VII possibly get into the film Advent Children?
So here’s the story and, if you’re not a fan of the game, tell me if you follow. The “advent children” of the film’s title refers to the genetic offspring of Jenova, an alien creature referred to in the worlds culture as an ancient or a Cetra. Three of these children, each representing an aspect of the villainous Sephiroth have come to Midgar to find the remains of their “mother” and recover many of the remaining children that were also a result of the Shinra Corporations experiments to create the ultimate soldiers from Jenova’s remains. Meanwhile the world’s greatest warrior, Cloud Strife, works at a delivery company along with his friend Tifa and Barrett’s daughter Marlene and an orphan child named Denzel. Denzel has a disease that has been infecting people after the defeat of Sephiroth at the end of Final Fantasy VII. Cloud hasn’t been home for some time because he’s a loner and stuff and so his only contact with Tifa and the kids has been via voicemail on his Panasonic branded mobile phone. For the next 100 minutes stuff happens, voicemails are left, physics are defied and everyone at home is left confused.
I purposefully didn’t give you any character history there that don’t relate direct to the plot there for good reason. The film doesn’t bother to, so why should I? I understand that the film is primarily made for the core fans, that’s super wicked cool and stuff, but if you’re making a Final Fantasy product in a medium that isn’t a game surely there’s some intention to grow the brand. They have to assume that some people that don’t play games may see this, whether it’s because they’ve heard of Final Fantasy or because there was nothing else on Sky Movies at the time. Either way, you have to assume as a story teller that your potential viewers may not be aware of the entirety of Final Fantasy VII. This doesn’t require such in the way of exposition, just some careful dialogue to inform people of what they’ll need to know. You also can’t assume that filling them in later on will mean the earlier scenes that made little sense will now be mysterious. The first time you see the film’s villains you’d just as well assume their some sort of a transgender emo biker gang that can, for some reason, summon monsters out of the ground.
But effectively explaining the various require plot threads would presuppose that the film makers had any idea as to how a film’s plot is told. I’ll give a ton of credit to Tetsuya Nomura as a video game story teller. He’s not amazing but he’s done alright for himself. But he clearly has no idea how films are structured and how to tell a story in a consistent thread where one scene must lead into the next in a cohesive manner. Many of the film’s tangential threads that lead one scene to the next are conveyed via voice over dialogue from mobile phone calls not happening in the scene at the time we’re watching. You’re introduction to Barrett, a key character in the game, is via a voicemail where he doesn’t introduce himself and is played over Cloud riding his bike through some mountains. This also has nothing to do with the previous or following scenes. The phone call was to tell Cloud to be sure to look after Marlene until Barrett is back home, which they’re already doing. I guess it establishes that Marlene’s father is away though.
The films flows in this way constantly. The three ridiculously named villains, Kadaj, Loz and Yazoo (seriously) attack Cloud out of nowhere early on that has no effect on the story at all. Cloud doesn’t even seem to find it weird that three weirdos attacked him out of nowhere and then left of their own accord. He finds out they’re somehow related to Sephiroth and Jenova but makes no effort to do the logical thing and rally his old team together to attempt to stop them reaching their goal. Eventually he tells Tifa he’s going after them, which leads to another silly fight sequence and then Cloud just kinda leaves them to go do whatever they’re doing with the small army of kidnapped children. Next time you see them they’re making a scene in a town square claiming, with no evidence, that the remains of their mother is housed in a monument to the finale of the game. And then they summon a monster, that we as gamers know is called Bahamut but anyone else would not, and everyone from the game turns up for like, no reason. No-one calls on the characters. Half of them haven’t even been mentioned by name or referred to once. They just turn up. Naturally Cloud is last because he has to be Captain Superman and save the day all cool and shit.
So the film is a confusing mess of poor storytelling and a clear disregard for the basic tenants of film making, but hey, this is an action flick right? Some films can get by on action alone, right? Oh man the action in this film. I mentioned before about the villains summoning monsters, I didn’t mention that this was in the middle of a desert based bike chase with inter-vehicular sword and gun fighting. It is truly ridiculous. At one point Cloud takes a bullet to the face and shrugs it off because his shades totally stopped that bullet. Later in the film Cloud is launched thousands of feet into the air to chase after Bahamut purely via the power of getting leg ups from his friends, who are also mostly in mid air. The game has plenty of over the top attacks but they often involve magic use. This is all leg strength and cardio. As far as I can remember there wasn’t a fly materia. I’ve seen physics defied in films many times but this may well be the most ridiculous ever. The film clearly gives zero shits total about physics or even any reasoning to these feats of superhuman ability. Keep in mind that to many people who aren’t fans of the games, Cloud is a delivery guy that has some sort of past. Also, the film doesn’t explain what materia is, but it’s used often, If they had explained materia and then said that Cloud was using that then all would be good. Magic can be the reason for anything.
I’d probably be easier on the action if, aside from it’s disregard for physics, it had some sort of respect for framing, staging and not making your audience motion sick. Every single action is accompanied by the camera swinging around like it’s attached to a rope in a room that’s spinning out of control. Characters warp from one location to another in an instant, although at least one does it on screen with some sort of power, but this creates a confusing spatial awareness issue. You have no idea of the placement of the characters in the battle because they’re always somewhere else. The director has also employed the sort of over the top speed up slow down shots that would make even Zach Snyder think twice. There’s a very clear concern to just make every second of the fights look cool by hitting those comic book frame moments where the characters are all in mid air with swords clashing and motorbikes being flung all over the place. Action should have purpose. It should tell a story. Every motion a character makes should be with reason. The villains have no intention of killing Cloud so each of these fights is just them toying with him. Also, what’s the point of fighting when the characters can shrug off bullets to the face?
The music for the film is scored by genuine video game music legend Nobou Uematsu. He’s pretty much responsible for the sound of Square’s games through the 80s and 90s, especially with the Final Fantasy series. The trouble is that his music is aimed around providing a background theme as your character trundles about their game world at their own pace. You can’t compose, on the older systems at least, a score that directly reflects the actions on screen when you can’t determine just how long a player will be in any particular occasion. In Advent Children he has re-scored many of the themes present in the Final Fantasy series and just chucked them down with little regard for the action on screen. In a film you are aware of the pace of a scene, for the actions being acted out, and as such the score needs to work along side this. Here it’s mixed a little too far into the background and rarely tallies up to what we see on screen. We get Aeris’ Theme in the appropriate place, for example, but it doesn’t flow with the scene in question at all. This creates a disjointed feeling between what we see and what we hear. Some of the music even veers into that horrible mid 2000s Japanese metal sound that was all over the place in games and anime. That just makes me think of New Fist of the North Star.
So is there anything to praise the film for? Well, the CGI itself is actually of a pretty high quality. The film was praised for its animation, which is bizarre because everything has that awkward, robotic feel that you often get in films when a real actor is replaced by a digital, non-motion captured one. Like those bits in Blade 2 where digital Wesley Snipes is suddenly jumping around the screen. Your brain picks it up and tells you it is wrong instantly. So this paragraph didn’t stay on the subject of praising the film for long did it?
Overall Final Fantasy VII Advent Children is a messy, confused, impenetrable film that could only appeal to the most hardcore Final Fantasy VII fans. I’d like to think they’re smart enough to know they’ve been sold a terrible film though. This is what happens when a video game company believes that their game designers can write, score and direct a film just as well as those Hollywood types. There’s a reason film makers make films and not games, same as there is a reason video game makers make games. The two don’t mesh well without some real careful and knowledgeable input from people that understand both. The makers of this film only understand games. A very specific type of game at that. Spirits Within had Sony behind it’s production and a smarter storyteller in Hironobu Sakaguchi at the helm. This had Square at their highest levels of hubris and dollar signs steering it. It’s funny too, cos SquareEnix just announced they’re creating a Final Fantasy quality control department. About 8 years too late there.