Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children
Directed By: Tetsuya Nomura
Here is everything you need to know about Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children: its single most emotionally-charged moment arrives about halfway through, when a key cast member is lost in battle and sinks into a watery grave. It's an event with blatant parallels to Aeris Gainsborough's death in the game which inspired the movie, and it offers a keen insight into the life of main character Cloud Strife.
Except that by "key cast member" I mean "cell phone."
In any other film, a character dropping his phone would be a throwaway moment, meriting a fleeting "oh crap" scowl before moving on to other more pressing matters. In Advent Children, however, Cloud's Panasonic FOMA is lovingly rendered and actually puts in more screen time (and plays a more pivotal role) than most of the returning FFVII cast. Its "death" is given more dramatic weight than anything else in the film, and as it sinks into oblivion it provides the only scrap of character development to be found in the entire production (in the form of a voice mail audio collage).
That's because Advent Children is, at heart, a movie about buying stuff. It was originally conceived not as a stand-alone work, but rather as the first product in a massive FFVII-themed merchandising package consisting of itself, a cell phone game (Before Crisis, which plays best on the Panasonic FOMA, don't you know), a near-vaporous PSP RPG (Crisis Core) and possibly the worst PlayStation 2 action game ever to be published outside of the Simple 2000 series (Dirge of Cerberus).
At least the Simple 2000 games have cheap production values and sheer kitsch on their side; Dirge has no such excuse. It has nice graphics and even nicer FMV, so money was clearly no object. Quality, on the other hand, was in short supply. But then, it doesn't need to be mired by such mundane considerations, does it? The words "Final Fantasy VII" are emblazoned on the cover, and that's all Square Enix feels it needs to justify your purchase.
And that is why Advent Children is quite simply one of the worst movies ever made. Not because it's poorly written, or because it relies on inexplicable plot in place of involving story, or because the stiff animation falls painfully short of the detailed CG modeling on display, or because it's utterly boring despite being one of the most action-oriented movies ever made. Of course, all these things are factors, but what really pushes it over the edge is the sheer cynicism at the heart of its conception, the notion that fanservice alone should reign über alles.
Come to that, Advent Children even fails as fanservice, since the one shining virtue of its source material -- Cloud coming to terms with his failures and realizing that his friends and loved ones make life worth living -- is completely discarded. When the movie opens, Cloud's off sulking by himself because his skin problems are too advanced for even his dermatologist to resolve. (Of course, he leaves his cellphone -- Panasonic FOMA! Featuring iMode! -- active so his friends can worry about him, a desperate MySpace emo-whore move if ever there was one.) Everyone wants to help him, but he cooly pushes them away. Hey -- just like at the start of FFVII.
So over the course of the 90 minutes that comprise the purgatory that is Advent Children, Cloud learns to love, remembers how to smile and presumably shacks up with Tifa again. In other words, a straight-up rehash of his FFVII character arc. Oh, and it also manages to undo the game's decisive climax as well, casually bringing Sephiroth back to life through a series of plot contrivances never sullied by anything so trite as an explanation.
In other words, the 40-60 hours of you sank into FFVII, helping Cloud learn to keep his chin up while slicing Sephiroth to ribbons, was time completely wasted. If you care at all about anything that happened over the course of the game, better stock up on towels now. That wetness you feel isn't precipitation, it's Square Enix spitting in your face.
Yet people who have never played the game have no more reason to see the movie than fans, because without having experienced FFVII its cinematic sequel makes no sense whatsoever. Few of its pivotal plot points are explained -- and for that matter, neither are the characters. I can only imagine the bewilderment that a Final Fantasy virgin must experience while watching FF7AC, especially during the big fight scene in which Cloud's party members are trotted out one by one to pitch in (sporting true deus ex machina style)... but never actually introduced. Newcomers might wonder why a royal, Scottish kitten is riding Scar from The Lion King?, for instance. Yet no explanations are forthcoming.
That makes Advent Children a remarkable accomplishment: a big-budget sequel as hostile to novitiates as to veterans.
Yet despite its lack of suitability for, well, anyone, everyone should see it at least once. Rarely does such a creatively empty exercise in brand awareness command such hype, especially now that the Star Wars movies are done with. The world is a richer place for its existence. True good cannot exist in the world without true evil (assuming you base your philosophical worldview on the lessons of Castlevania games); likewise, without true artistic bankruptcy, how can there be artistic genius? Advent Children provides us with that callow baseline -- the absolute zero point of creativity's thermal scale -- giving viewers a crucial reference point for calibrating review scales and good taste alike.
I'll be the first to say (quite cheerfully) that Final Fantasy VII was riddled with artistic failings, but it still had some redeeming qualities. You need look no further than Advent Children for a reminder of what true artistic emptiness looks like.
Advent Children is, in essence, Final Fantasy VII without the gameplay. And lord knows FFVII's gameplay barely qualified as such at times, but at least it kept the plot comfortably padded and gave the more ridiculous excesses time to sink in and feel less egregious. Strip away the filler and you have the final, incontrovertible proof that so many videogame directors are frustrated film auteurs whose primary obstacle to working in the film industry is that their cinematic vision makes the dregs of Sandy Frank's catalogue look like Schindler's Freaking List.
Mr. Kojima, I love Metal Gear and all, but I can't thank you enough for sticking to games. I'll be so, so sad the day you announce Metal Gear: Advent Children and urinate on everything good about your series.
Of course, videogames can tell intriguing stories; while Ico has become more notable as a flashpoint for games-as-art debates, only a complete hack would deby that it perfectly expresses the concept narrative through gameplay. The story is never forced on you but rather emerges in tandem with the adventure, revealing itself a thread at a time as a natural extension of the action. And while in the end the tale is never fully explained, it's satisfying in its mystery, like a beautifully written short story whose enigmatic conclusion haunts your imagination for days afterwards.
But that's Ico. This is FFVII -- the game that practically invented the peculiar form of storytelling now endemic to the Japanese RPG. You know, the one in which obtuse foreshadowing, compulsory amnesia and blatant misdirection serve to build artificial suspense. Who needs capable writing when you can just string players along with veiled half-truths and forced "twists"? Needless to say, Advent Children cleaves to this philosophy, true to its roots.
But with only 90 minutes' running time -- a good half of it devoted to empty violence -- the movie never offers a real payoff. Stuff happens, and lots of property gets blown up in the process, yet none of it actually matters because the consequences are never explained. Something bad will happen if the sulky leather boys get their way, apparently, but who cares? The movie does nothing to make a single character sympathetic (except maybe the kids who are forced to watch as the baddest of the leather boys talks about "Mother's mimetic legacy" -- the audience understands the blank looks on their faces all too well). Meanwhile, the writers carefully unravel any emotional investment that might have carried over from the game. That's Advent Children: 90 minutes of the sound of wailing heavy metal guitars and charcoal-grey fury, signifying nothing.
Even the fight scenes -- arguably the heart of the movie, since it's the closest thing to gameplay to be found, all the way down to the use of Limit Breaks -- are pointless. There's no urgency to the conflict, because it's all so ludicrously over-the-top. Delicate-looking women are slammed through marble columns without a scratch; combatants fly through the air and are punched hundreds of feet without apparent damage; Cloud is stabbed and shot, through the chest in both instances, but barely pauses. It is the worst kind of violence, the meaningless kind in which blows are exchanged without purpose until the plot calls for a victor. When Sephiroth is finally put out of our misery, it's not because Cloud has outfought him. No, he simply pulled a flashy trick out of his sleeve, at which point the storyboarders ran out of pyrotechnics or something. He wins because... he wins. Zen koan or bad writing? You already know where my money is.
It's true that in FFVII -- the videogame one, not the movie one -- Shinra's soldiers inflict a paltry 5% damage on a low-level character with bursts of machinegun fire. But integrating that ludicrous byproduct of a dated gameplay style into a contemporary film is dogged literalism at its worst. Of all the things to translate slavishly from the game, they had to pick the ridiculous ones rather than, say, the few meaningful plot points. Typical.
Perhaps most depressing of all is the sheer amount of money that's been sunk into a work with such an utter lack of redeeming qualities. Tally what Square Enix invested into the movie's creation, then add to that the sum of cash fans have forked over to own a copy: all combined, you'll find a sum that reaches into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Hundreds of millions. You could feed a small, impoverished nation with the money used to create and propagate this putrescent exercise in corporate cynicism. Thousands of children died of hunger so that we could have fightin' pretty boys.
But at least we got lots of sweet Advent Children merchandise, eh?