Abuse Your Illusion


An exploding plastic inevitable, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within dares you to be amazed by its soulless mimeograph of humanity. In a dystopian future, this is the only type of movie we’d get to see: manufactured by hard-wiring, stamped from market-proven narrative templates, ostensibly distracting in the sheer bulk of its preprogrammed mayhem. All digital, all the time, Final Fantasy is not a cartoon, but rather a simulacrum of live-action Bruckheimer-ness so factory-pressed it should have an I’m-recyclable triangle embossed on every frame.

Think photo-realism without purpose, ironic or otherwise—and painted by nanotechnology. The movie’s conspicuous artillery of faux details is its only Power Point, but today digital imaging is so ubiquitous that the achievement is authentically redundant. (Indeed, the masterfully imitated landscapes evoke the similar wonk-craft of “serious” live-action epics like Gladiator, The Messenger, and Contact.) It is said that a full third of the film’s budget was spent on making the heroine’s wispy hair convincingly wispy; how many heads of organic hair they could’ve bought is apparently irrelevant. The exercise is so elaborately pointless you’d think the Pentagon had bankrolled it.

Actually, it’s a product of the same Japanese codeheads for whom the eponymous game series has been a spurting cash cow. The story itself is reheated Arthur C. Clarke: As giant alien “phantoms” (resembling microscopically photographed mosquitoes) besiege the earth, Identikit humans rally. There’s a digital Ben Affleck (with Alec Baldwin’s voice), a digital Neve Campbell (with Ming-Na’s voice), a digital Jason Priestley (with Steve Buscemi’s voice), etc. In this New Age, everything is helpfully color-coded: Silvery blue is good Gaia, leathery red is bad Gaia. For all of the monumental attention paid to visual fidelity (even a few lens flares and moments of handheld shakiness), the techies still can’t manage to make two characters look convincingly into each other’s eyes—it’s like watching Disney World animatronic figures do soap opera.

The ultimate justification for Final Fantasy, it seems, is the wholesale subtraction of people from the entertainment equation; the games triumphed without the wetware, didn’t they? But of course, they didn’t: First-person electronic gaming revolves around and happens to a very human player, and without him/her, it’s just machine love.

Artifice of a decidedly more anxious variety, the work of Harold Pinter reads like a psychograph of mid-century Western society, but more to the point, he’s the playwright who taught culture that dramatic arenas are by definition built only of presumption, questionable faith, and the bottomless mystery of language. The nail-biting bridge between Beckett and Mamet, Pinter has from the beginning supported himself via movies, and it’s unlikely that any other screenwriter has adapted as many eminent authors: Kafka, Fitzgerald, Bowen, Hartley, Fowles, Atwood, McEwan, etc. The retro at Walter Reade focuses first on Pinter’s early role as a defining figure in the ’60s British New Wave. Authoring the dour, scalding Joseph Losey trio The Servant, Accident, and The Go-Between, Pinter steered increasingly toward his own abstracted style, while at the same time serving up fastidious but relatively straightforward genre screenplays, as for the spy drama The Quiller Memorandum. While pivotal Pinter movies like Betrayal and The French Lieutenant’s Woman are omitted, several little-seen TV adaptations of his plays are included, all dwarfed by the 1973 American Film Theater production of The Homecoming. Perhaps Pinter’s most merciless play, it becomes in Peter Hall’s claustrophobic film version a blood-spattered dog pit of family spite, perversity, and poisonous responsibility.