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‘Final Fantasy’ is convoluted, confusing

Film looks great, but characters are expressionless

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FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN —** — Animated film starring the voices of Ming-Na, Alec Baldwin, James Woods, Donald Sutherland, Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi, Peri Gilpin and others; rated PG-13 (animated violence, profanity); Carmike 12, Cottonwood Mall and Ritz 15 Theaters; Century Theatres 16; Cinemark Jordan Landing Theaters; Gateway 8 Cinemas; Loews Cineplex Broadway Centre and Midvalley Cinemas; Megaplex 17 at Jordan Commons; Redwood Drive-in (with "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider").

With relatively few exceptions, movies inspired by video games have been about as exciting as watching someone else play the game for two hours.

And while that might be fine if you're an attention-deficit youngster wandering around in an arcade or someone who's patiently waiting for a turn on a home videogame system, it isn't for most movie audiences. They expect a little more for their entertainment dollars.

From a technical standpoint, "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" would appear to have a leg up on the others. It's surely one of the most dazzling examples of digitally rendered, three-dimensional artwork to hit the big screen so far.

Unfortunately, plotwise it's same old story — one-dimensional characterizations and a nearly incomprehensible plot, which is a particular pity given the quality of the animation. However, it's not all that surprising, considering the movie was conceived and made by the people responsible for the game that spawned the movie.

"Final Fantasy" is set in the "not-too-distant future," in a time when man is living within "barrier cities" — communities erected after a meteor crashes to Earth, releasing hordes of murderous alien "phantoms."

While the military is busy trying to fight off these aliens — or at least, reclaim some of the world for humanity — the scientific community is hoping to find a more peaceful solution. That includes Aki Ross (the voice of Ming-Na, from TV's "ER"), a young scientist who has been "infected" by one of the phantoms. She's dying but is still trying to find eight "spirits," life-form signatures that will allow her to prepare an effective defense against the aliens.

Unfortunately, she may not have much time, as vengeful military leader Gen. Hein (voiced by James Woods) is preparing for most extreme measures to get rid of the invading creatures once and for all.

That's simplifying the story line a bit, and it probably doesn't give you an accurate picture of how convoluted it really is (or how it steals from other sources, including "Star Wars" and the animated film "Princess Mononoke").

Ironically, the film's greatest strength is also one of its biggest weaknesses. As realistic-looking as the characters are, the flat, expressionless features make them seem emotionally aloof and rather unsympathetic.

Compounding that problem is the flatness of the vocal performances (even the usually colorful Steve Buscemi and Peri Gilpin sound as if they've been replaced by robotic versions).

"Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" is rated PG-13 for animated science-fiction action and violence — some of which may be terrifying to youngsters — and scattered profanity. Running time: 101 minutes.

E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com