Recently, Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV was made available for rent on iTunes. Being a Final Fantasy fan, I decided to check it out. But I was also keenly aware of its critical response on RottenTomatoes.
Was this going to be a hidden gem? Was it going to be the movie that defied previous expectations for Final Fantasy movies? Was it going to be an improvement on “Final Fantasy VII Advent Children” or the ill-fated “Spirits Within”? Spoilers for all three movies will follow.
Depends on what you are trying to improve. If you’re discussing the technology used to deliver visual fidelity, it’s an unmistakable improvement. But, technology marches on so this kind of incremental improvement is a given.
But where the Final Fantasy franchise has stagnated, ironically, is in an area that is independent of technology. While it may be quicker to type up a screenplay in a preformatted manner, you can’t computer generate a good screenplay.
A Beautiful Walled Garden
It has a broader implication, of course. Video game movies have never been successful. Even the most “successful” video game-based movie, “Warcraft” was critically trashed.
However, one would believe that Final Fantasy would be the one to buck this trend. Final Fantasy has been known to have some of the best storytelling in games. Many gamers look back fondly on Final Fantasy VII in particular.
Having seen all three Final Fantasy movies, I can outline each of their problems in detail.
Spirits Within suffers from several problems. First is within its marketing. Leveraging the brand name in the manner that they did was only going to alienate audiences. Those unfamiliar with the brand would not be drawn in because the film is clearly a science fiction setting in the real world. Those familiar with it are going to expect a fantasy world which simply wasn’t there. In effect, nobody was going to be satisfied.
The other problem was that the script was so forgettable that about halfway through the film I asked myself if I remembered how they got into the predicament they currently faced. My brain came back with a resounding “no”, I had literally forgotten half the movie because it wasn’t worth following.
I can’t remember anything about Aki Ross, anything about the other characters. I remember the Gaea Theory which was borrowed from Final Fantasy VII but made less sense in this context. Not only did I not remember, I certainly didn’t care.
Advent Children fared slightly better in my eyes, but perhaps that’s because I was familiar with Final Fantasy VII, it being the first Final Fantasy I played. To a lay audience, it’s completely inaccessible. You won’t know or care about what happened unless you played the game. Given that the game was nearly ten years old at the time, this presents more of a problem than if the game had been released recently.
I know this because I sat down and watched it with a friend and the only thing she stayed around for was the fight scenes. They are skillfully done and always keep the action moving. But it’s much harder to get invested in the consequences when you don’t know about the characters who are fighting.
That’s pretty much what Advent Children is, well-done fight sequences interspliced with forgettable dialog, some exposition, and the occasional bit of character development that feels more like a sudden shift than a gradual arc.
Specifically, Cloud’s character arc was a tricky scenario. The reason that he can’t be the confident leader he was near the end of the game is because then he’d never have anywhere to grow. So they made the most plausible arc for him: he is grieving over the deaths of Zack Fair and Aerith, blaming himself for letting them die.
He additionally falls victim to Geostigma, an illness caused by Jenova-cell infected pockets of Lifestream. But this is presented as the thing that causes him the most struggle. From the get-go, he loses a battle with Kadaj’s gang because he was suffering from its effects. In contrast, his fear of creating another Aerith scenario only comes up halfway through the film. He broods about Zack’s loss earlier on, but it doesn’t really mean much of anything. The relationship between Cloud and Zack is heavily compressed because, by definition, it must be.
The relationship with Aerith suffers even more, due to the decision to obscure her face for the majority of the film. This decision is honestly quite baffling, since the fans whom this film was targeting already know what her face looks like so it’s not like some big reveal. Aerith doesn’t really represent anything other than herself.
There are small bits of symbolism to be found if you watch the making-of featurette. But there’s the rub, you have to watch the featurette in order to understand it. Unlike “2001: A Space Odyssey” where you can get a better understanding if you read the novel but can fill in the blanks with interpretation should you decide to simply watch the film, (or maybe just drop acid at the stargate sequence) it’s required watching for Advent Children.
This is manifested in the wolf that follows Cloud around, it represents Cloud’s dwelling in the past. At the end of the film, the wolf catches up with him, meaning that he has overcome his past guilt. But this is lost on your average viewer.
If it has anything, Advent Children has name brand recognition. It has characters that its intended audience can relate to because we already know them. So, despite the fact that it isn’t really a good movie by any aspect other than visuals it can still function as mindless entertainment on that aspect alone.
The same cannot be said for Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV. Indeed, Kingsglaive falls short in even more storytelling 101 ways.
The biggest problem is that it lacks a main character. The ostensible protagonist is Nyx, but we learn so little about who he is that he might as well be a cipher. He could be anyone, and he doesn’t fit being an audience surrogate either. He is a member of Kingsglaive and has access to information that the audience doesn’t have, making us separate from him in many ways. Other characters, like king Regis, are even less characterized.
If there’s a “main character” of Kingsglaive, it’s the world that is lavishly designed to the point of excess. It’s evident that hundreds of thousands of man-hours and a sizeable portion of the budget went into bringing the world to life.
It’s also increasingly evident that the female roles are not really considered. There are less than a handful of female characters in the entire film that I could remember. Only two of those characters are voiced. Two of them are killed shortly after their introduction or after they have served their purpose in the plot. The only one who survives and has a role in the film beyond merely being present in a fleeting shot, Princess Lunafreya, is used as a MacGuffin in order to divert the Kingsglaive from the invading force of Niflheim’s real goal.
The World Is Not Enough
But a common trap that much fantasy media falls into is that it is assumed that the world building will drive the audience engagement. It usually won’t. While hardcore fans may be poring through all of Tolkien’s work to understand the vast world he had created, most moviegoers are more concerned about Frodo’s journey.
Even an engaging world won’t save an unengaging story, which is exactly how I’d describe Kingsglaive. The popular opinion ranks it much higher than its critical response, but I’d side with the critics on this one. Most of us will likely forget Kingsglaive even existed.
But what leaves me scratching my head is the fact that it’s been demonstrated that Square-Enix can put a good story in place. They did it with Final Fantasy IV, they did it with Final Fantasy VI, they did it with Final Fantasy VII, they did it with Final Fantasy VIII (though I don’t hear that discussed as much), they did it with Final Fantasy IX, they did it with Final Fantasy X, they did it with Final Fantasy XII, they even did it with Final Fantasy XIV. I wouldn’t be surprised if Final Fantasy XV’s story itself was very good.
Of course, my omission of certain titles is a subjective judgment. The first three games weren’t plot-heavy so I usually don’t count them. Final Fantasy XI’s story was also not mentioned as a driving point. Final Fantasy XIII, well that’s going to need an article all its own.
But what are the moments in Final Fantasy that I personally remember? It wasn’t bombastic action sequences. In fact, I couldn’t stand their use in Final Fantasy XIII because people would backflip would a simple jump would suffice.
Out of all the games, I remember Final Fantasy VII the best. There are a handful of moments that I’d single out as memorable. I remember the escape from the Shinra HQ, the Nibelheim incident involving an increasingly deranged Sephiroth, the date with Aerith in the Gold Saucer, the diving into Cloud’s coma.
The next most memorable game is Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions. The nuggets of pre-rendered cutscenes are sprinkled lightly enough so that they serve as a treat for the player but retain significance.
In IX, it’s the interplay between characters like Vivi and Steiner. It’s the relationships that the characters have with each other that are explored fully. Where are these moments in the movies?
What we get instead are flashy action sequences, floating weapons, and disposable characters. We get movies that explore the surface of Final Fantasy but never the substance. We get an impressive looking demo reel for any of the animators involved, but a horrible portfolio for the screenwriters.
Should Final Fantasy XVI roll around and make a similar decision to host multimedia content connected to the main installment, perhaps it would be beneficial to consider the elements that a mass audience can relate to. Otherwise, we’re going to end up with identical movies that end up pleasing no one.