Had Kingsglaive: (opens in new tab) been released in theaters back in 2001, things would have been very different. Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of Final Fantasy, might not have had to leave Squaresoft after sinking a huge percentage of the company’s cash into the absolute bomb of a movie known as Final Fantasy: Spirits Within. Squaresoft might have actually stayed Squaresoft rather than merging with Enix and embarking on a decade of creative wandering, longing to be a blockbuster production house but never matching the magic or its multimedia heyday on Super Nintendo and PlayStation. Final Fantasy might have turned into the massive, mainstream crossover success Final Fantasy 7 suggested it could be. Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy 15 might have made it all happen because here’s the thing: it is a great Final Fantasy movie, capturing everything distinct about the series that spawned it while also working as a thoughtfully executed action movie on the level of (opens in new tab) and (opens in new tab). They finally did it. And best of all, you don’t need to know anything about Final Fantasy to love it.
Kingsglaive, within minutes of starting, does what Spirits Within and the other attempts to translate Final Fantasy to film and television like Advent Children and the abysmal ‘90s anime never bothered to: clearly define its world and introduce characters we can immediately identify and empathize with. The world is in a dire state at the beginning, but the stakes are clear. In a world weirdly similar to ours (they drive Audis and love hoodies) but wholly alien (militaries fight using guns, horrific tentacle monsters, and magic), the technologically powerful Niflheim empire has waged a decades long war for control of the world. The kingdom of Lucis, a monarchy whose military, infrastructure and lifestyle is rooted in magic power sourced from the last remaining crystal on a world where there used to be many, is one of the last holdouts resisting Nifelheim rule. When we meet Kingsglaive’s hero Nyx, voiced with charmingly put-upon stoicism by Aaron Paul, Lucis is reduced to little more than its capital city and the crystal-powered magic wall keeping out monsters, displaced rebels, and the overwhelming Nifelheim forces.
Familiar to anyone born in the past 500 years that’s happened to see Shakespeare’s Henry V, Star Wars, or even played a Final Fantasy game before, this political backdrop is a proven stock story tool that’s easy to understand and fits a plethora of sympathetic character archetypes. Kingsglaive elevates itself immediately, though, through elegant world building and sharp, simple characters. When we meet the Kingslgaive, a special force of fighters from Lucis that can actually use the magic sourced from the kingdom’s crystal and its king Regis (voiced by the ever lovable, ever doomed Sean Bean), the style of warfare is surreal but vividly wrought. The countryside is brutalized by angular warships dropping building-sized monsters that blanket the area with organic cruise missiles.
Nyx and the other ‘glaive fighters, meanwhile, dart about the landscape, throwing short swords that they can warp to while others support them with magic. While all the action could easily become incoherent, director Takeshi Nozue frames every shot in a way that carves a clear path between cause and effect. I understood instantly how the Lucisian fighters worked, what they could and couldn’t do, why it was such a struggle for defensive mages to maintain the force’s shields thanks to clear staging and subtle body animation. All of which made it easier to get lost in the Kingsglaive’s plight as they returned to a war-weary city and Nifelheim inexplicably retreated, clearly preparing some new subterfuge. This blend of clear plotting and strange fantasy eludes most movies that attempt it at all, let alone previous Final Fantasy films that were at best inscrutable underneath the mystic operatics.
If Kingsglaive were just an above average action movie with a smooth script it would still impress but the humanity of its principal characters also raises Square-Enix’s film. Everyone performs with real heart and while the stellar animation sometimes (if rarely) dips into the (opens in new tab), the soul of the characters carries those rough moments. Regis is a classically stoic monarch and warrior torn between protecting the world from ongoing war and making painful sacrifices of the people he’s sworn to protect, but he’s also more, a father whose worry for his family makes it difficult to focus at crucial moments. Luna, royalty from a neighboring nation, political ally to Regis and fiancee to his son, also at first seems to just fill the role of knowing but powerless princess, but she reveals herself over the course of the story as an aggressively pragmatic person doing everything she can to prevent further bloodshed.
And Nyx, the face of the Kingsglaive, is sympathetic beyond the stock capable hero who sees what’s really happening. As a refugee from the outskirts of Lucis that have been totally destroyed by the war, he’s conflicted: do I serve the king and protect these people or do I curse them for destroying my home through their power struggle? Even characters who only appear for a few minutes are as convincingly wrought and layered as these three, totally human people in a world where skyscraper-sized tentacle monsters are military ordinance but folks still drive Audis.
Kingsglaive is a smart, well made movie but it’s also just good Final Fantasy. The series has always been a collage, sneaking away parts of Tolkein, Dungeons and Dragons, the early-20th century sci-fi of Edgar Rice Burroughs and vintage anime while building and rebuilding its own mythos in each new story. Airships, chocobos, summoned monsters, magic and familiar technology seamlessly blended; while each new Final Fantasy is its own entity, it stacks these themes and props in new patterns to maintain a distinct atmosphere. Nods to the series’ past pepper the movie--one major monster is yanked right out of Final Fantasy 4 for a mid-movie, mid-air confrontation that is astounding and there’s a Bank of Spira calling out to Final Fantasy 10--but it’s remarkable how Kingsglaive goes beyond just the cosmetic. The whole story and world takes the tropes of Final Fantasy and weaves them into the human story seamlessly and logically. Even when the action escalates to enormous, world-shaking, Advent Children scale, it makes sense with what’s already been established.
Which I thought would have been impossible. Yet here’s Kingsglaive, the Final Fantasy movie that people have wanted Square to make since they got into making movies at the turn of the century. In 2016, the blockbuster action movie has been beset on all sides by mediocrity. The best action movie of the year won’t even see a wide theatrical release. It’s coming out on Blu-ray and as a pack in with the limited edition of a long awaited video game sequel. And it is, spectacularly, Final Fantasy.