The “Final Fantasy” series is one of the greatest franchises in the (admittedly brief) history of videogames, a saga of non-continuous roleplaying games which — despite its title — shows no signs of stopping or slowing down. Some of the most immersive and well-realized adventures of their kind, these blockbuster entertainments are known for creating dynamic new worlds for players to explore and invariably save.
But moviegoers, especially those who haven’t devoted hours of hours to the videogames, may have much less warm feelings towards the property. Despite standing out on the strength of its characters and storytelling, both previous attempts to stretch the brand to the big screen have been misfires — one merely bad, the other disastrous.
Released in the summer of 2001, the supposedly photorealistic 2001’s “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” was too far ahead of its time, and too tenuously connected to its namesake (the only common thread is a character named Cid and the pre-rendered aesthetic of a videogame cut-scene). Then, in 2005, came “Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children.” An animated direct-to-video sequel to the most widely beloved game in the franchise, the film needlessly confused an epic story that had already come to a satisfying end.
Developer Square Enix is hoping that the third time’s the charm, and they’ve pulled out all of the stops (and a boatload of cash) to help ensure that luck is on their side. “Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV” is certainly the most confident and purposeful of the films that have been adapted from the RPG series. An 115-minute feature that’s been explicitly designed to raise awareness for the November 29 release of “Final Fantasy XV” (a financial behemoth that, by this point in its troubled 10-year development process, is practically the “Chinese Democracy” of massive Japanese videogames), the project was first announced as part of a star-studded press conference earlier this year, at which famous voice talent was trotted out to assure fans of the franchise that all of their waiting had been worth it, because “Final Fantasy XV” was going to be a bonafide multimedia event.
The lavishly animated “Kingsglaive” has clearly been in the works for several years, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the movie was made to justify the “Final Fantasy XV” boondoggle rather than to solve it, the same way that making the Titanic even bigger was the only way to rationalize why it was so huge in the first place. In part, that’s because the film makes absolutely zero sense, even for viewers who could you tell you from memory how to breed a golden Chocobo — “Kingsglaive” was designed so that it would not be necessary for people to watch in order to enjoy “Final Fantasy XV,” but it might be necessary to play “Final Fantasy XV” in order to enjoy “Kingsglaive.”
Directed by Takeshi Nozue (who also helmed “Advent Children”) and boasting a plot that supposedly runs parallel to that of the videogame, “Kingsglaive” begins with a prologue so densely packed with convoluted lore that you’ll likely be lost by the time you reach the title card. You know how Peter Jackson so cleanly laid out the backstory of Middle Earth in the first few minutes of “The Fellowship of the Ring?” Nozue doesn’t.
“For centuries, the sacred magic of the divine crystal blessed our world and its people,” orates “Game of Thrones” star Lena Headey, name-checking at least one crucial “Final Fantasy” term before launching into a frenzied crash course on the recent political history of the Earth-like planet of Eos. Long story short, a vicious war is raging between Lucis — the only empire that still has one of those sweet magic crystals — and Niflheim, who are super jealous about it, and have compensated by developing a wealth of destructive technology and an insatiable lust to use it. Lucis’ only defense against the Niflheim forces and the kaiju-like war machines they have at their disposal is the giant magic barrier that cocoons the ridiculously named capital city of Insomnia.
As the film begins in earnest, Regis Lucis Caelum CXIII, the king of Lucis (voiced by “Game of Thrones” star Sean Bean) has just come to the grim realization that he won’t be able to protect Insomnia for much longer, and the super evil chancellor of Niflheim — realizing a chance to strike — has offered an unexpected ceasefire that comes with all kinds of strings attached. The strangest item: The king of Lucis’ son (the absent protagonist of the videogame) will have to wed a Niflheim princess named Lunafreya (Headey).
Intrigue! But don’t get too comfortable, because none of this stuff really matters. As suggested by its title, the film is really about the Kingsglaive, a thoroughly uninteresting unit of elite soldiers who share Regis’ power and are sworn to protect him at all costs. Introduced via a mind-numbingly hectic battle that feels likes a cross between “Starship Troopers” and “The Avengers” but isn’t half as much fun as it sounds, the Kingsglaive are a bunch of largely indistinguishable bros who — like the characters in “Final Fantasy XV” — have the neat ability to teleport wherever they throw their weapons.
One member of the Kingsglaive does manage to stand out, but that’s only because Aaron Paul’s distractingly recognizable voice comes out of his mouth whenever he speaks. Between this, “BoJack Horseman,” and a seemingly endless string of commercials, the “Breaking Bad” actor is charting a bright new career for himself in the voiceover world, but he’s far more fun to listen to when he’s playing a character who isn’t too generic to take advantage of his noble stoner vibes. Nyx is your typical rebellious hunk with a destiny as big as his biceps — eventually assigned to be Lunafreya’s bodyguard, he’s right in the middle of things when the shit hits the fan. Oh, yeah, it turns out the obviously evil Niflheim chancellor who dresses like a drunken hipster with a leather fetish and dreams of global domination has an ulterior motive. Who could have foreseen?
As a stand-alone film, “Kingsglaive” is a beautifully rendered bore. Trafficking in the kind of exposition-heavy storytelling that feels natural in a game where you can spend 40 hours with its characters but feels wooden as a starter sword when crammed into a non-interactive feature, the movie can’t even sell viewers on the strength of its most declarative moments. “True power is not bound by those who seek it, it is something that comes to those who deserve it,” one character righteously announces during the film’s interminable final battle, despite that logic only applying to the world of videogames and “chosen one” narratives.
The action, while vividly imaginative, is just as frantic and hard to follow as the plot. Unmoored from the physical restraints of live-action, the Kingsglaive and their enemies dart around the screen like hummingbirds, a blur of clanking metal and fizzles of magic that’s too busy for the eye to follow. While the graphics are astoundingly life-like, Nozue doesn’t deploy them with the grace or restraint that makes the cut-scenes in the “Final Fantasy” games so memorable. It’s telling that the most satisfying moment, at least for fans, is a 2D cartoon that Nyx watches on TV.
As a glorified advertisement for “Final Fantasy XV,” however, the film has some merit. Insomnia, stupid name withstanding, is a beautiful dream of what Earth might look like if speckled with magic, complete with copious product placement from Beats and Audi that perversely helps make the city feel more realistic (the Kingsglaive even have iPhones!). You may not want to spend more time with these characters, but you will want to sink deeper into their world — fortunately, the forthcoming videogame will allow players to do just that. Whether the game will make retroactively make “Kingsglaive” a more engaging movie remains to be seen, but there’s certainly room for improvement.
“Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV” opens in theaters on Friday, August 19.