Typically, we're not inclined to sit around for two hours making small talk. We're not like that. Believe it or not, we have better things to do than arch our spines next to coffee tables making idle conversation about frightening-looking marble dogs perched in hotel lobbies. But then again, there are exceptions. Invite us round to see 25 minutes of Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children - the CG-based film that Square Enix is making to explore the fates of the cast of FFVII after the events of the game - for example, and, though we'll spend most of the time burning up inside with anticipation, we'll still sit around patiently for just about as long as it takes.
And so it was, after running our eyes over just about every piece of furniture and peculiarly shaped ashtray in the restaurant of whichever mid-to-upper-swank outfitted hotel we happened to be in on Monday, we were ushered downstairs into a private screening room and brought face to face with what only a few handfuls of Western journalists have had a chance to see. And it's as much as we can do not to blurt out every little detail, spoiling the entire thing for you in the process. But we won't.
Fortunately, however, there are some things we can tell you. Firstly, it's obviously still not finished, and is due out "in 2005" according to Square Enix senior vice president and general producer of the film Shinji Hashimoto, who wasn't willing to be any more specific about that. Furthermore, the company has yet to decide whether to grant it a cinematic release first, or treat it as an OVA (Original Video Animation; the Japanese equivalent of "direct-to-video", although far more respectable) and release it on DVD and the PlayStation Portable's UMD at the same time as had been widely reported in the past, and there's still much to be done before anyone can commit to whether or not it will be released simultaneously worldwide.
More positively, the section we saw was 25 minutes of footage that, to begin with, appeared to be quite cohesive and continuous, but gradually became slightly more oblique and trailer-like as we got towards the grandstanding set-pieces of the arresting finale - when many of the central players were finally assembled on-stage. And they look grand. We're not going to touch on the plot too much because that would be naughty, but we can say that things are getting very uncomfortable for Cloud and his friends, and that this will be a tale of much tragedy as well as rejuvenation. Peace isn't likely to last as a mysterious illness sweeps across the planet and old enemies are astir, and the origins of the illness and the people it affects are going to come as quite a shock.
Moving away from that, the final film will be around 70 minutes long according to Hashimoto-san, and judging by the quality of the sections we were privy to it's going to be a feast for fans of arguably the best Final Fantasy game since the series moved between cartridge and disc formats. Visually it's utterly spellbinding; the degree of detail and the believability of the animation transcends even what Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within managed to achieve when Square last took us to the movies. You can see from stills of the film the realism of simple things like fabrics, hair and skin, but in motion these things are mostly noteworthy because under any other circumstance they wouldn't be; you don't even question that they're real. Hair flows in the breeze or sweeps from side to side as heads jerk, brows crease and lips purse with concentration, cloth rolls over outstretching hands and relaxes into folds as it settles back down, and despite the phenomenal technical achievements of the composition the director, Tetsuya Nomura, never lingers too long upon these things unless it's relevant to gauge reactions or they hold some significance. It's a beautiful film that, while it's proud to demonstrate its artistry at every turn, isn't so obsessed with it that it lapses into tech demo territory. It's the right balance.
Equally light and shadow never exceeds its relevance in search of appreciation, doing just enough to nurture the bleak atmosphere that the director is clearly striving for. From the first shots of a moody cafe that seems to be struggling to retain the light that seeps in through shuttered windows, to the gloom of a desolate overcast view from a clifftop, perfectly encapsulating Cloud's newfound isolation, the impression is of a lonely land eternally on the brink of rain and darkness. And when night does fall, moonlight wafts across lakes and canopies are fractured by starlight, but beautiful as it always is the world rarely oversteps its background role. It's the events that matter.
And the events we've witnessed rarely disappoint. Vincent's arrival, to pick a favourite example, is mesmerising and ethereal, like a flood of black smoke snaking through invisible channels in the air to rescue Cloud from projectile doom, while one particular fight in a church demonstrates just how much agility and fighting skill the artists can convey without straying into the wire-fu wasteland. Watching a certain familiar character thrown brutally across a church, cutting through the warm strained-glass-filtered sunlight like a bullet and then landing cat-like on the wall in time to throw a defiant glance at her aggressor, you totally lose yourself. Based on our (admittedly limited) film viewing habits, only films like Crouching Tiger and House of Flying Daggers seem to be working on this level - and let's face it, neither of those rips dragon-like winged monsters straight from the clouds, still dripping from their mid-air soak to rain merry fanged gothic hell upon troubled lives below.
Perhaps more importantly, the narrative is rich with the typically survivalist themes that drive Final Fantasy games - acted and written with enough emotion for you to engage with the familiar characters without struggling with the fact they're CG compositions, and layered with enough intrigue and ambiguity to make you consider the underlying morality while you're busy being swept away by the impossible and sometimes-bewildering action sequences. One of which, a motorcycle sword battle stretching over and under several highways and tunnels, is so fast and ferocious that our palms started to sweat. And that was before Cloud found himself suspended high in the sky using twin blades to simultaneously clamber up some aerial monstrosity and cut a path through mountains of tumbling debris. Oh that sword.
We're not film critics. You may have noticed that. But we do know what we like - and we like what Square Enix is doing with Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. If we had to criticise, we might argue that some of the crash zooms (we think that's right) and little cuts between characters in battle are a bit too in-your-face to be completely fluid and engaging - a criticism that we recall was levelled at some of the fight sequences in the first Lord of the Rings film - but then we're not certain that Square Enix wasn't merely teasing us with them anyway, particularly when they started to intersperse them with menacing shots of certain familiar villains and our friends in peril. Upon which note: speaking to composer Nobuo Uematsu about his favourite battle themes over the years on the same day, the veteran musician noted that the climactic battle with Sephiroth at the end of FFVII produced his personal favourite. As the credits spiralled off-screen at the end of our 25 minutes with Advent Children, we recalled that we felt much the same way. Then we clapped. A lot. We've lived with these characters before, been one of them even, and the film so far seems to know to use that to strum our emotions with a sombre but unforgettable melody.
We'll be bringing you more of our thoughts on Advent Children, as well as the full details of our discussions with Hashimoto-san and Uematsu-san, later in the week. And if you want to hear how one of the most important composers in the history of RPG music felt about the music on our iPod, amongst other things, you'll want to tune in. In the meantime, we've eagerly drained the press disc we were handed of some 88 captures from the film, which you can find here.