“I hope that this project may lead to something, since we woke up something that was sleeping.” (Tetsuo Nomura on Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children)
Full disclosure: I’m not a gamer.
The extent of my electronic gaming can be summed up by The Sims 2, Kingdom Hearts I & II, Assassin’s Creed II, and scattered Gameboy games that were mostly Mario-related. And even then, most of the non-Sims games were being played in conjunction with my younger brother, so I did very little actual playing. In the end, video games are just not my forte and I don’t necessarily enjoy playing them, so I leave it to those who do.
However, I will say that I do often enjoy the stories that are told in games, especially those in the Final Fantasy franchise from Square Enix — specifically, I find the entire urban-fantasy world of Final Fantasy VII incredibly interesting. But I didn’t come about it in the “traditional” sense, i.e. I didn’t, and still haven’t ever actually played the game. I haven’t even played its two major spinoffs, Crisis Core and Dirge of Cerberus. No, I came to Final Fantasy VII through its full-length computer-animated feature adaptation/sequel film, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children.
Advent Children1 was my introduction into the world of Final Fantasy VII and, I’ll be honest, if I hadn’t had a companion not only explaining the entire movie’s backstory to me while watching it, as well as been willing to do a little internet wiki-ing on my own, I don’t think I ever would have ever been able to enjoy this world. It’s a shame because the world is fascinating, but the simple reason I had a hard time with Advent Children is that it’s not a particularly good sequel-adaptation of its source material. And it isn’t just me saying this, either. The film currently holds a 33% “Rotten” rating on the review aggregate site, Rotten Tomatoes, and you can find plenty of backlash online from fans and newbies alike.
There was certainly potential for this film to work as a sequel, having not only an interesting world, dynamic characters, a great (almost legendary) villain with his own badass theme song, and a team of animators who are adept at creating stunning visuals. But while that’s a good foundation, there’s a crucial element missing: film-writing experience.
Scriptwriting is hard, whether it be a 15-minute short film, or a full-length feature — add onto that adaptive scriptwriting? Wheeszh, it’s even harder, because now there are two widely disparate audiences that a scriptwriter must consider: those who know the source material and those who don’t. It is, therefore, always incredibly important to know one’s audience, and one of the primary reasons why films are created as treatments before written scripts. A treatment is the step between scene cards and the first draft of a screenplay that exists as a kind of “super-outline,” because it includes details like directorial style, target audience, et al. that an outline will otherwise omit.
When watching Advent Children for the first time, it felt like the film skipped that step, because it clearly didn’t know its audience — well, more specifically, it didn’t really know who exactly it wanted its target audience to be. Was this meant to be just 120-minutes of fan service for the diehards, or was it meant to help bring the new, potential fan into the fold? That question — who is your audience? — is one of the fundamental questions of writing, and knowing the audience for an adaptive script, even one that is also a sequel, is just as important as when writing the script for an original story. Somehow, the writers of Advent Children either didn’t bother to ask this question, or they tried so hard to please everyone, that they inevitably pleased no one.
How did this happen?
I think it’s predominantly because nobody involved in the film had any filmmaking experience.
In an interview with PlayStation magazine back in 2003, director, Tetsuya Nomura, spoke on how he and the others developers approached making Advent Children the way they previous approached in-game movies. For anyone who’s not familiar, an in-game movie, also known as a cutscene, is a non-interactive sequence within a video game that breaks up gameplay for the purpose of showing conversations between characters, bringing exposition to the player, setting the mood, showing the effects of a player’s actions, create emotional connections, improving pacing, and/or foreshadowing future events. They can appear in many forms, from anything such as “on the fly” rendered graphics — using gameplay graphics to create scripted events — to full motion videos (FMVs), which are pre-rendered computer graphics streamed from a video file that usually feature a more cinematic quality to their visuals.
There’s a great debate surrounding cutscenes, and whatever your stance on them is your prerogative, but I think that Nomura’s point that the creators of Advent Children turned to cutscenes as a way to create their full-length feature film is supremely important because it’s one of the main reasons this film doesn’t work on a filmmaking level. Specifically, there’s no actual filmmaking going on. Advent Children looks and feels like a cobbling together of various cutscenes from a game trying to masquerade as a film, which leads to a clunky and uneven finished product. The film lacks cohesion, as the viewer bounces from one scene to the next without the benefit of scene leads or transitions that create narrative flow. As a person who was coming into this film with zero knowledge about the world of Final Fantasy VII, I struggled not only to keep up with the events on screen, but to understand why they were important and why I even needed to care.
Not only that, but about 78% of Advent Children2 is spent on extended fight sequences that feel like absolutely gorgeous cutscenes — think the fight between the First Class SOLDIERs in Crisis Core — but contribute nothing to the story. The film, therefore, comes off as feeling like fanservice for those already familiar with Final Fantasy VII.
And that would be fine…if the film hadn’t been trying so hard to make sure that it wasn’t that very exact thing. Advent Children shows its confusion right at the outset, cold-opening with two vague, unconnected scenes that are ultimately useless to the film’s narrative, a flash forward to a conversation taking place about 3/4 of the way through the film, and most importantly an epigraph that reads:
To those who loved this world and knew friendly company therein: this Reunion is for you.
Okay, so you’re for the fans, then? But then why is your next immediate scene and arguably “proper” opening sequence a nearly three-minute recap, narrated by Marlene Wallace, that spells out the plot of Final Fantasy VII in some lovely and vague bullet points that don’t tell us much of anything before transitioning to characters who have been given no names and are suddenly embroiled in a nicely-animated battle with three nameless protagonists because we don’t know why and there’s a big sword that might be important and phone calls between unnamed people and some black disease goo and wasn’t there supposed to be a guy named Sephiroth we haven’t seen and have you caught my drift yet?
It’s a conundrum, really, coming at this as someone who was not initially familiar with the original story/video game. You have something that, at times, is visually stunning on an animation level, but with no clear direction of its own story. Is it about redemption? Forgiveness? Is it about a clear lack of personal hygiene in Midgar? What the hell even is Midgar? Without any background knowledge, all a new viewer can do is throw their hands up in the air and be wholly confused.
Like I said, adaptation is hard, especially when you’re both adapting source material while simultaneously making a sequel — but in can be done. Contrast Advent Children with Joss Whedon’s Serenity: a perfect sequel-adaptation of the tragically short-lived television series, Firefly, that was accessible to both fans of the series and people who knew nothing about it. In his review of the film, the late Roger Ebert said:
Science fiction fans will recognize the plot line and most of the characters from a short-lived Fox series named “Firefly,” which (I learn in a letter from Stephen McNeil of Sydney, Nova Scotia), was canceled in mid-season, but not before the episodes were carelessly shown out of proper order.
Despite having to be informed about Serenity’s television roots, Roger Ebert’s review had no problem picking up on characters, plot, and the world of Serenity, which is a demonstration of the power of a good adaptive script crafted by someone who has made films before. After all, I initially saw Serenity before Firefly (before you all get up in arms, it was by accident–I found Serenity on TV one day while home sick and watched it before later being informed it had been a sequel to a television series) and I was in the same boat as Ebert: I had no problem immersing myself in the world of Serenity or following its characters and story.
At the end of the day, adaptive filmmakers create for two audiences: the fans and the newbies. It’s not always easy, and it doesn’t always work, but there is that consideration that needs to be made…and it’s also best if it’s made by people who have filmmaking experience.
*Nota bene: The author would like to note that, despite all of these criticisms and all the inherent flaws, she does actually enjoy the blu-ray edition of this film entitled Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children Complete.
- This conversation uses Advent Children as a blanket term for both the original Japanese theatrical and US DVD release, as well as the later blu-ray release, Advent Children Complete which features updated animation and several minutes of addition scenes. The blanket terminology is being used because all my base arguments on Advent Children apply to the Complete version as well.
- I calculated this percentage based upon the film’s entire runtime, including end credits and any post-credits scenes. In terms of method, I recorded the timecodes for the beginning and ending of any physical fight/battle sequence within the film and added them up before dividing them by the film’s runtime.
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