Criticizing a film like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is a difficult proposition. The sensation is much what it must have been like when talking pictures came into being. I can imagine being astonished that such a thing as The Jazz Singer or Lights of New York existed at all in the late 1920s, while being simultaneously appalled at the content, but making allowances for the newness of the medium. As one of the first — and the first to attempt realism — features to be totally created by computer animation, you have to cut Final Fantasy some slack. This is new territory and teething troubles are expected — and delivered. Yes, the animation is fascinating and sometimes startlingly believable. The effects range from very good to breathtaking. The story line is compelling enough: In typical futuristic terms, the earth is dying. A team of scientists, Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) and Dr. Aki Ross (Ming-Na), are trying to defeat the alien invasion of “phantoms” that are destroying the earth by gathering eight “spirits” to counteract them. Of course, the military has other, more violent ideas. (Yes, we just saw this in Evolution.) It’s simplistic enough to work within the format of the film. But as drama, the film runs afoul of a screenplay by Al Reinert (Apollo 13) and Jeff Vintar (The Long Hello) with dialogue that is, frankly, atrocious. When one character is impaled during a car crash, he’s asked to “say something.” He says, “Ouch.” Even the unflappable Ving Rhames can’t do a thing with this material!) The problem with this is that these characters are already sufficiently not-quite-real. Giving them dialogue you can’t imagine anyone ever saying, they become not only more unreal, but impossible to really care about. It’s hard to blame the high-profile voice talent for this. They just have nothing to work with. There’s also a tendency toward predictability (at one point, I asked my companion at the screening, “Isn’t it about time for the comic relief to hand in his dinner pail?” and in less than a minute, the fellow was deader’n a mackerel). Too bad, too, because the film actually boasts sequences of admirable suspense — or they would be suspenseful if the characters mattered much to the viewer. Part of the blame must go to first-time director Hironobu Sakaguchi, who created the Final Fantasy video games that fathered the film. He has a great visual sense, but his notions of drama are rudimentary and he probably should have been partnered with someone more familiar with dramatic structure. Late in the film, his novice director status causes the film to become hard to follow as concerns just what’s blowing up where. (The modern rule of thumb that it doesn’t matter what’s exploding, so long as something is, may come into play here, as well.) Then too, the film insists on adhering a little too close to its video-game origins, utilizing an extremely drab color scheme that perhaps explains why the characters seems so listless. One area in which the film is almost completely successful, however, is the excellent musical score by Elliot Goldenthal. Probably more than the director, the writers or the actors, Goldenthal’s music holds the film together, giving it the illusion of more emotional depth than it really has. Final Fantasy isn’t really good, but it’s not really bad. It is, however, a landmark work in the realm of computer animation. For that reason alone, it’s worth seeing.