Advent Children: the first Final Fantasy film that didn’t implode the company and force it to be consumed by its biggest rival. A dubious compliment, to be sure, but a compliment nevertheless. We’ll get to that other movie, the Final Fantasy that threatened to be truly final, in its proper place and time (after FFIX, before FFX). For the time being, we’re sticking with FFVII.
Advent Children was preceded in Japan by a series of short stories intended to promote the film. The stories were released inconsistently for a few years, and eventually ended up in a collection entitled On the Way to a Smile. I’m not going to be covering the stories in much detail, but I did read them all, and even liked most them. At worst, they were no more distracting than unremarkable filler. I liked the opening chapter, “Case of Denzel,” the best. “Case of Denzel” focuses on its title character, a young boy living in Midgar, during the events of FFVII. The plot touches on the game’s big catastrophes as actual moments of great tragedy and horror, instead of cartoonish dog-kicking moments like the blasted game. I guess that makes FFVII another of those rare properties that is damaged by its own follow-ups, since “Case of Denzel” only managed to focus my dislike of the original’s handling of such sensitive events.
With that aside, let’s turn to the film itself. The original Advent Children was released in theatres in September 2005 in Japan, eight years after the release of FFVII, and April 2006 in English. We’ll be looking at the original version here, not the 2009 direct-to-DVD “Complete Edition,” since Kyle already owned the original. Oh, and while we’re here, I’m going to formally announce that I’m switching back to “Aerith,” since that’s what this movie calls her. Good? Good.
The film starts… with Japanese text that is not subtitled unless you have subtitles on for the entire film. Oh, thank you, this is a wonderful first impression. It’s actually just a dedication to the fans, and we move from there we repeat the post-credits scene of Red XIII and his children, 500 years in the future. This is not relevant to this film in any way. None whatsoever! Okay, well certainly this is a horrible first impression even if the last one doesn’t count?
We jump back in time to two years after the events of FFVII and arrive in the frozen north, where we hear a voice that we can conclude from context to be Elena speaking to Tseng. Now, I’m not going to repeat any credits originally listed in Crisis Core, like Tseng, even if this was technically the first appearance for many actors in the role. We’ve already gone over that ground. That said, Elena is new to us and she’s voiced by Bettina Bush, the original voice of Rainbow Brite. She’d also go on to appear in Ben 10 as Kai Green.
Tseng and Elena have found something that’s “not a very pretty sight,” seemingly at Northern Crater, and Reno is called in to collect them via helicopter. Just then, the sound of gunshots over the radio! Elena is hit and the radio goes dead. The next thing we know, the helicopter is flying away, with sign of who’s on board, thanks to its tinted glass.
The following scene features a young girl’s voice, which turns out to be Marlene’s. Marlene attempts to summarize the events of FFVII in brief. It’s honestly not a very good summary, but the idea of summarizing the plot of FFVII in just a few seconds for a general audience was probably unachievable. Marlene is voiced by Grace Rolek, who would have been eight when the film was released. This was her first named role, but it’s a minor one. Rolek’s first major role would be in a series of Disney shorts entitled Lou and Lou: Safety Patrol, where she played one of the two Lous, but most fans will probably know her these days as the voice of Connie Maheswaran in Steven Universe. IMDb also gives her a miscellaneous credit for Dirge of Cerberus, but I’m not sure if I should trust them on that, considering they also credit her for two roles that took place before she was even born.
During Marlene’s story, we’re showed the ruin of the Midgar plate after it was cut to pieces by Meteor, Holy and the Lifestream. After this, we cut to another city, which you could easily mistake for Midgar because this film, well… let’s just say that this film doesn’t care much about clarity. The short stories identify this city as a new city called Edge, because it was built by the survivors of Midgar at the “edge” of Midgar. Notably, Edge has no ruins in the Red XIII “500 years later” ending, even in the film’s version, but let’s just ignore that because that 500 years later segment has nothing to do with anything and I can’t emphasize that enough. In the middle of Edge, we see a monument dedicated to the event that people now call Meteorfall. The monument, naturally, resembles FFVII’s original logo, complete with a gap where the logo lacks shading. Very clever.
At the end of her speech, Marlene turns to the plot of the film, saying “It looks like the Planet was a lot madder than we thought.” Several children in the city are ill with what Marlene calls “Geostigma,” which people are apparently blaming on the Planet. There’s a good reason for this in the short story, wherein the populace gradually works out that people infected with Geostimga were those who came in contact with the Lifestream during the Lifestreams’ attack on Meteor (and a few instances of people coming in contact with the Lifestream after the fact), but this isn’t mentioned in the film.
Geostigma appears as a strange black mark on the victim’s skin, though in the film, it’s often pretty damned hard to see! This was eventually corrected for the Complete cut, but what an awful job in the original! According to On the Way to a Smile, Geostigma was planned to be a black liquid that would seep from the skin, and from what I’ve seen of the Complete Edition, they got a little closer to the mark. The original film? Not so much. It looks like some kind of faint tattoo, or maybe just darker shading on their 3D model, and there are plenty of shots where I can’t make it out at all! I’m not surprised the original filmmakers gave up on rendering a liquid, since liquids are hard to render even today. In fact, they’re so hard to render that I’m surprised the idea of a “liquid” stayed in the script long enough to reach the short stories in the first place!
We finally catch up to Marlene in the present, and see that she’s tending to a boy about her own age who has caught Geostigma. During this scene, we also learn that the boy is supposed to be Denzel from On the Way to a Smile. The film makes no attempt to introduce or contextualize him, even though some brief context would have really, really helped here. While I could explain how the short stories got him here and what his life is like today… why should I? This Journal is a critical endeavour attempting to capture my initial response to the film as best I can, and I watched the film before I read the short stories. As far as I’m concerned, the film deserves the flak for not doing its damned job correctly. Denzel is voiced by Benjamin Bryan, who has only really played bit parts and one-shots both before and since.
The film then goes out of its way to make a transition as though they were going to another part of town, sweeping through streets and the like, but we stop, we’re actually just downstairs from Marlene and Denzel, which is not a reassuring example of the creators’ cinematic ability! It seems that Marlene and Denzel are living with Tifa above a rebuilt 7th Heaven Bar, now located in Edge. You sure know how to ruin a pun, Tifa. Tifa is in the bar cleaning up, when she gets a phone call. She ignores it, saying “He’s not here anymore!” to the empty room, but finally gives in and goes upstairs to an office to answer. Fans may notice that Tifa is wearing a ribbon on her arm, which isn’t ever explained in the plot but is worn by every member of the former party, supposedly in remembrance of Aerith. Once again, you can only get this information from out-of-film sources, and in this case it’s not even mentioned in On the Way to a Smile!
While in the office, we see a picture of Tifa, Cloud, Marlene and Denzel posing together, almost like a family, which would honestly be the correct descriptor from the short stories (Marlene’s relationship to Barret is an interesting bit of familial texture, since she essentially has three parents). Unfortunately, as the short story readers already know and film watchers have just-about guessed, Cloud’s not here anymore.
Tifa answers the phone, saying “Strife Delivery Service?” and says that she recognizes the voice on the other end. At this point, we lurch away from the phone call to a hill overlooking Midgar: the place where Zack Fair died. A wolf is here, standing next to Cloud’s Buster Sword, which he appears to have left as a means of marking Zack’s grave. Angeal would be proud to know his sword has been abandoned and left to rust.
We catch up to Cloud on his motorcycle, informally known as the Fenrir (once you know the bike’s name – and once again, the film barely emphasizes it – the wolf from earlier makes a lot more symbolic sense). Cloud is listening to his messages on his cell phone, and hears Tifa saying that Reno just called, saying that Reno has work for Cloud at “Healin.” You know, Healin? What a great location from FFVII, wasn’t it? I remember all the side quests, and the plot progression… oh, wait, Healin isn’t actually a location from FFVII? Fans and new audience members are equally confused? They could have just as easily used Kalm, or some other town?
By the way, you remember Reno, right? Red hair, cocky attitude, murdered thousands of people in what the original game considered its plot’s second-greatest atrocity? He’s free of all charges and we still have a working relationship with him, and now he’s dedicated comic relief! In any event, the implication is that Cloud is refusing to answer his phone so he doesn’t have to talk to anyone, even Tifa, or mass-murderers for that matter. As he settles into his motorcycle, Cloud feels a sharp pain on his arm.
We return to the Buster Sword all of a sudden, and three motorcycles pull up ridden by three grey-haired figures, the figure in the middle kicking down the Buster Sword. Now, in an earlier draft of this Journal, I tried withholding the names of these characters until they were properly introduced, but it got a little confusing. Instead, I’ll just introduce them from left to right in the attached screenshot: Yazoo, Kadaj, and Loz. I think “Yazoo” would have been my sign to take away Tetsuya Nomura’s pen send him to bed early, but whatever you say, Square Enix. Kadaj seems to be in charge, and they start talking about someone they call their “big brother.”
Kadaj here is voiced by Steve Staley, probably best known for the role of Neji on Naruto, though his career in anime goes back quite a ways. Yazoo is Dave Wittenberg, a fellow Naruto cast member, where he plays Kakashi, though I think we can all agree that his greatest role was in Gravity Falls, where he played the Time Baby. Loz, meanwhile, is Fred Tatsciore. He’s also in Naruto (in fact, I think I might just stop referencing Naruto in these bios, since more than half the cast seems to have been pulled from there), where he plays Kakuzu and Gato, but he’s also in so many currently running shows (at the time I write this, in late 2016) that I’m frankly astonished he has time to sleep.
Yazoo discusses the possibility that “Mother” might be with their big brother, but Kadaj isn’t certain. Just then, Cloud passes by them below, and Yazoo and Loz drive off after him, leaving Kadaj behind. In what may be my favourite effect in the movie, dark lines of shadow stretch from their bikes and cause monstrous dogs to appear alongside Cloud. And since that’s my favourite effect in the film, I am delighted to announce that it will be all downhill from here!
Cloud sees the monsters and activates something on the Fenrir that causes it to pop open and reveal a whole bevy of swords. Like an inverted porcupine. These are Cloud’s “fusion swords,” and he can mix, match and attach them to make all kinds of weapons, including a big sword about the size of the original Buster Sword (actually, it might be more correct to the Japanese name to say “these are parts of Cloud’s ‘fusion sword,'” singular, with “fusion sword” being the completed weapon rather than the smaller weapons). The fusion sword is about as anime as you can get, and Cloud uses the smaller ones to fight the monsters off. Yazoo and Loz identify Cloud as “Brother” during the chase, and accuse him of hiding “Mother” from them. Meanwhile, Kadaj is on his cell phone, arguing with someone who he thinks has “Mother” (why are these three working on different sets of information?). After an argument, he orders the person on the other end of the line to “put the president on.”
On the ground, Cloud is about to be taken down by monsters when Kadaj, finished with his phone call, snaps his fingers and the monsters all vanish. Cloud notices Kadaj as Loz and Yazoo pull away, and then… continues on his way as though nothing had happened!
We catch up with Cloud later down the road, where he’s listening to a message from Barret on the phone. Barret is voiced by Beau Billingslea, a frequent anime voice actor with credits in Cowboy Bebop, Naruto, Bleach, and of course that anime classic: Hannah Montana: The Movie. Barret is talking about finding a huge gusher of oil, and that he’ll be coming home soon.
To Kyle, this phone call one of the film’s big betrayals of the original game. Kyle feels that Barret turning to oil undermines both Barret’s FFVII motivation, and the game’s environmentalism in general. This is not even explained in the film, like everything else. In the short stories (and be aware that Barret’s short story was published after the film’s initial launch), we see Barret going through a character arc where he tries to find a purpose after he faces up to the guilt of killing innocents in the reactor bombings. He ultimately decides to find a replacement for Mako so that people will be able to reconnect and rebuild with quasi-modern technology, especially when it comes to helping victims of Geostigma. He ends up working with Cid and restarts the world’s fossil fuel industry. I feel this is a great arc for Barret, but fails in how it wasn’t included in the film, wasn’t shared outside of Japan, and–oh yeah! Kyle’s still right that this flies in the face of FFVII’s environmentalism.
Now, I feel that FFVII’s environmental message was incredibly ludditic, being at best New Age luddism and at worst even anti-science. As far as FFVII is concerned, all the good science is related to Cid (i.e., the science of the real-world space race and 1960s, the science of the FFVII authors’ past), basically everything else (the science of the authors’ post-childhood and future) being an ugly, ugly blight on the world. “My place in history is the best place in history, any further change is the devil,” we’ve all heard this sort of argument before.The short stories and Advent Children, however, are basically all pro-science and progress, with technological solutions saving the day, and even corporations get a good light! I’m not going to say any more about either point of view, but I will say that trying to put both views into the same franchise leads to as much of a mess as you’d expect.
Cloud arrives at Healin Lodge to ask Reno about this job of his. Warned by Tifa that Reno called a second time off-camera and was sounding somewhat strange, Cloud goes in armed, and sure enough, Reno outright attacks him on arrival, but it seems to have just been a ploy to see if Cloud was in shape. Annoyed by him, Cloud just manoeuvres Reno out the front door and locks him out of his own building. This is my favourite part of the movie.
Rude then arrives and tries the same thing, but is quickly held at swordpoint. Just then, a man arrives in a wheelchair, concealed by a blanket wrapped about his upper body, Only his lower face and right hand are visible, and his left hand doesn’t seem capable of moving at all. Cloud recognizes the man’s voice, and realizes this is Rufus Shinra, still alive, although by the signs in pretty poor shape as a consequence of the explosions. Rufus is voiced by Wally Wingert, future voice of The Riddler in the Batman: Arkham series. He’d also later go on to voice a completely different sort of character than both in Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, where he’d voice one of Peter Pan’s lost boys!
Cloud believes Rufus is responsible for the attack by Kadaj and the others, but Rufus doesn’t discuss the matter. He says that what remains of the Shinra Electric Power company owes the world to make up for its mistakes, and tells Cloud about their investigation at the Northern Cave, saying they found nothing there and that Cloud can “relax,” knowing that Sephiroth is gone for good. However, he says that Kadaj (whom he identifies by name) and his brothers were at Northern Cave and attacked Tseng and Elena. Rufus wants to hire Cloud as a mercenary to deal with Kadaj, but Cloud refuses, saying “I’m a delivery boy now.”
Rufus says some more, even an off-hand title drop for On the Way to a Smile, and Cloud seems almost ready to change his mind before Reno accidentally shouts, “Together we can rebuild Shinra!” Cloud storms off.
We then cut to Midgar, back in the old Sector 5 church – Aerith’s church – where Tifa and Marlene arrive. It seems Tifa has discovered that Cloud is living here now. Searching the place, the two of them find a secured trunk and also a bandage that’s stained by Geostigma, causing them to recognize that Cloud, too, is infected. Presumably, the infection happened thanks to his dive into the Lifestream to battle Sephiroth at the end of FFVII. I don’t believe it happened when he was dunked mid-game, since Tifa isn’t infected and infection rate for people who have contacted the Lifestream during and post-Meteorfall is otherwise 100% (and no, Cloud is not dunked into the Lifestream during OtWtaS). Marlene and Tifa have a brief conversation about Cloud coming back and rejoining their family, during which Marlene’s emotions run all over the place with no honest connection from sentence to sentence. I don’t really know what to say about it, the scene is just as confusing to me in a rewatch as it was on my first viewing and I just have to accept that it was poorly done.
Jumping back to Healin Lodge, we discover that Cloud is long gone, but Rufus has new guests. Reno and Rude have just been thrashed by Kadaj, who announces, “Boy, do I hate liars!” He’s speaking to Rufus, who tells Kadaj that “the object you seek” (I’m going to generously assume that the Japanese line was a bit more natural) was lost out of Reno’s helicopter somewhere in the Arctic Circle, as it was fleeing from Kadaj in the first place. To taunt Rufus, Kadaj throws him Elena and Tseng’s identification cards, covered with blood. When Rufus asks why Kadaj cares about the item in question, Kadaj suddenly puts on a huge wave of different emotions, first childish and later angry, saying that they need “Mother” for a new Reunion. It’s fairly clear he’s talking about Jenova. He then explains that “Mother’s memetic legacy lives on in the Lifestream” and is responsible for the Geostigma, which has created a new, different crop of Jenova hosts in the world’s children… even though there are plenty of adult victims as well. Indeed, we soon learn Rufus is one of them! I notice that the way the short stories described Geostigma and its method of infection didn’t seem to target children so specifically as the film, so we’ll have to take that as a short story retcon. In any event, it seems that by killing Jenova, her soul corrupted the Lifestream itself.
Kadaj complains that the “guest of honour” is missing for the Reunion, and explains that he and his brothers need Jenova’s original cells to be complete again. When Rufus asks what Kadaj means, Kadaj oddly kneels, initially making me suspect that he’s talking about Rufus! But a moment later, he raises his head in such a way that Rufus sees that he resembles Sephiroth, which is apparently enough of an explanation to help Rufus catch his meaning. By the way, while the name never appears in the film, Kadaj, Yazoo and Loz are referred to behind-the-scenes as “the Remnants of Sephiroth.” It probably won’t surprise anyone if I spoil that his “guest of honour” is supposed to be Cloud.
Back at Zack’s grave, Cloud sets the Buster Sword back in place and remembers Zack in life, and mutters about how being a living legacy isn’t as easy as it might have seen. Just then, he has an attack of pain from his Geostigma, which the film loosely implies was caused by Kadaj channelling Sephiroth at Healin.
Cutting back to the church with Tifa and Marlene, Loz kicks in the door and starts shouting about Mother. Long story short, he and Tifa get into a fight to a piano remix of the game’s original battle theme, Loz using some electric weapons attached to his arm to deal extra damage. It’s here where one of the most frequent critiques of this film first become obvious: this fight is happening for virtually no reason and it adds little to the plot. As we go on, the film will continue to string together action scenes, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say the plot is simply an excuse for the action as some have done (goodness knows Tetsuya Nomura takes his plots seriously), the action still very much eclipses the plot what little plot does exist.
Tifa wins the fight and, to compliment the use of battle music, we hear the victory music as a cell phone ring tone, which is hilarious and cleverly done! But we quickly learn that this isn’t Tifa’s ring tone but Loz’s, and he stands back up as though nothing happened and answers it. Whoever is on the other end tells Loz to “bring the girl,” and Loz swiftly knocks Tifa out with his electricity. But just as he’s about to kill her, we see that Marlene has managed to open the secure trunk for earlier, and it turns out the trunk is full of Materia – presumably the party’s Materia, left over from the end of FFVII. Not knowing how to use the stuff, Marlene chucks one at Loz, and while this draws his attention away from Tifa and saves her life, Loz kidnaps Marlene and takes the valuable trunk.
We cut to Denzel in Edge, and discover that he is rounding up stigmatic children, including Denzel.