If the most damning thing I can say about Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV is that some of its dialogue and screenwriting are on the weak side, that's far better than what I was expecting to say about it. This feature film, as many already know, is intended mainly to introduce us to the world of the forthcoming Final Fantasy XV game. For that reason alone some are likely to dismiss it out of hand as either a two-hour cutscene or a two-hour game trailer. But there's at least an attempt here to tell a thoughtful story, and to populate it with people who have at least marginally more motivation than your average end boss.
Projects like this, I admit, always fascinate me, and from multiple angles. The gearhead nerd side of me is fascinated by the technology involved to produce something this eye-filling. And from a storytelling/worldbuilding POV, I'm always curious about the way these kinds of prequel/prelude stories operate — how well they stand on their own two feet, or whether or not a non-fan will end up caring. My ignorance of FFXV (and most of the Final Fantasy franchise generally) is all but total, making me a good test case for that last question. I cared about what was going on, although not as much as I would have liked to. But my eyes were sure wide open the whole time.
The power behind the throne
Much of the Final Fantasy franchise freely mixes magic and technology, or has some manner of the latter derived from the former. Kingsglaive gives us a world where the texture of daily life is more or less like our own — most of the action takes place in a city that's reminiscent of modern Manhattan or Tokyo — but a monarchy holds sway over all, one that has great magic at its command courtesy of a giant crystal. Said crystal powers the force-field that protects the city-kingdom of Lucis from attacks by the airships of the Niflheim empire, and the royal family is itself protected by the Kingsglaive, an elite unit of fighters drawn from immigrants who live beyond the city's limits. It's made clear early on that the Kingsglaive are not benefactors of any charity on the part of King Regis Lucis Caelum CXIII — they're expendables whose powers come from the king, and can be revoked at a moment's notice.
Most of the action centers around Nyx Ulric, one of the Kingsglaive, a stolid, in-the-trenches type whose loyalty to his friends comes first. When Niflheim is staging one of its attacks, raining fire down on him and his buddies, Nyx risks life, limb, and neck to run back for his buddy Libertus. Being chewed out and reassigned for Disobeying Direct Orders is just part of the price you pay for such things. What he and his company find a good deal less palatable, though, is word that Regis is preparing to accept an offer of peace from Niflheim. To the king, it's the only workable option in the long term, as he's losing his power to old age. To everyone else in the kingdom, it means an end to years of grinding, demoralizing warfare; to Nyx, Libertus, their female comrade Crowe, and a number of the others in the Kingsglaive, it means never being able to go home again, since those territories are being ceded to Niflheim as part of the peace deal.
The deal also comes with yet another string attached — Regis must marry his son to Lunafreya, a young woman originally from another province who's been a prisoner of Niflheim since childhood. A life in captivity has only made her all the more feisty; the first time we meet her, she's in the process of hatching a escape plan (thwarted, but at least she's trying). Her original escort, Crowe, turns up dead — the first hint of something very wrong — and Nyx is drafted in to ensure Lunafreya can make it to the wedding on time. Then she's kidnapped, and the political hijinks of the story are gradually phased out in favor of eye-popping slam-bang adventure, as the kidnapping turns out to have been a feint on Niflheim's part to enact a full-blown assault on not just the kingdom but the power on the throne itself.
A good man is hard to find — and sometimes rather dull, too
The first question I ask of any tie-in project like this is simple: Do I need any knowledge of the original material to care? Not just in terms of the setup, but the payoff — this is, after all, a prequel to the game, and so a lot of the way it concludes is meant to serve as run-up to what happens there. If the movie doesn't feel like a complete story on its own terms, it feels weirdly unfinished, and we feel resentful that we now have to go play the game to feel anything like closure.
Most of how Kingsglaive tries to get there is by focusing on Nyx — his efforts to protect Lunafreya, his conflicted feelings over the Kingsglaive (what matters more, the life you had or the life you have?), and the increasingly risky decisions he makes along the way. Some of this is straight out of the playbook of modern action-movie and video game heroics: when he twigs to the possibility that the peace treaty is a sham and that Lunafreya are in danger, he has to go over everyone's head — literally and figuratively — to get the word to Regis's ears. But over time this low-rent stuff is swapped out for much higher stakes, and it climaxes with Nyx electing to make a single, life-changing (and potentially life-ending) decision to protect the people that have come to matter.
Now the bad news: The limits of the decision-making around both Nyx and the rest of the movie ultimately hem him in. I do like that the stakes are raised as far as they are for Nyx over the course his character arc, but it ultimately has less impact than it ought. That I blame on Nyx being a fairly middle-of-the-road character — not boring, but also not someone who stands out in our minds as being an emotional center for the story. In that respect, he's also a lot like a stock video game main character in that he's less important for what he actually is than what qualities we can project onto him.
It's not that the story flat-out deprives Nyx any chance to be emotional, or for us to connect with him emotionally. It's just that by the time those things are deployed in full force, they feel like they come long after the window of opportunity to really connect with him emotionally has already closed. I did like how the story keeps the relationship between Nyx and Lunafreya one of mutual respect and even empathy, not bodice-ripper passion, but in the end even that becomes slightly counterproductive It's yet another way the emotions in the story are kept at a simmer rather than being allowed to come to full boil.
I am also reminded of a phenomenon I've become too familiar with by way of many of Disney's animated productions. The theory seems to go something like this: if you make your main character too outlandish, audiences have trouble connecting with him, and so you keep him bland as a way to also make him accessible, but you surround him with a lively supporting cast to throw him into sharp relief. Some of that is also at work here, and it shows up most vividly by way of Libertus, Nyx's angry, wounded, pill-popping buddy whose disenchantment with the Kingsglaive sends him into the arms of his enemies. If Nyx is made out to be tragically heroic, Libertus is heroically tragic. His decisions have more emotional impact for us, because they concern the people around him rather than those involving nebulous, impersonal cosmic forces.
Taking the Turing test
In 1982, computer pioneer Ted Nelson wrote about the "Turing test for computer graphics": We will know CGI has arrived when we can look at a picture of a human being and not be able to tell whether or not it's the real thing or a generated image. (See Creative Computing's March 1982 issue, and Nelson's article "Smoothers Of The Lost Arc", page 86.) He believed such a thing had come in 1982, but I look today at the picture in question that provoked this judgment — a man in top hat and tails, juggling polygons — and I wonder how anyone could have ever believed it was the real thing.
Now here we are in 2016, and the one thing I can say about Kingsglaive's visuals is that they pass the Turing test so routinely and readily — and so spectacularly — that if you see the film for no other reason, see it because it is a milestone in terms of matter-of-fact CGI realism. During the opening battle scene (which is astounding), my wife shoulder-surfed for a few moments, and commented, "Oh, so they made a live-action Final Fantasy movie, then?" It took her long moments to realize the close-up shots of Nyx's face were, in fact, not that of a real actor.
What caught my eye most directly were not the lush city environments or the startlingly detailed natural scenes, but little things like how faces and expressions were so convincingly reproduced. We're at the point where only the most minor and fleeting of details hint that this is CGI — here, it's usually the eyes or the teeth, but the actual facial movements are highly convincing. What's a little disappointing is how in a universe that boasts some of the most lavish and gloriously outré character designs of any franchise, Nyx gets short-changed — he looks like every other Short-Haired White Male Video Game Protagonist out there, maybe as part of his overall bid for middle-of-the-road blandness as a central character. Good thing his supporting cast is colorful.
A side note. In 2000, I was in theaters on opening night for Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and I had much the same reaction to that as I did to Kingsglaive. I admired its technical prowess, and I liked many of the individual choices in the film (Dr. Aki Ross becomes a far more interesting character to watch than Nyx), but I was frustrated at the way the story seemed to stop short of greatness. Some of that I blamed on the way the picture had been aimed at a wide audience; you couldn't afford to be too adventurous when hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake. Not that it mattered in the end, since the picture barely recouped dime one, and seemed to be yet more evidence that feature film productions created from video game properties weren't bankable.
Sixteen years have gone by since. The video game industry now spends at least as much money on AAA titles as Hollywood does on feature films, and often to greater gross receipts — to the point where something like Kingsglaive, a product unto itself, can be conceived as part of the promotional push for a game. Maybe they didn't want the promo-movie tail to wag too much of the video-game dog, and deliberately only allowed the movie so much dramatic latitude as a result. Sure is nice to look at, though.