What’s the nerdiest piece of merchandise you own? For me, I’ve got a $250/£180 Lego version of the Tumbler from the Dark Knight that sits on my dining table, and every time someone vaguely important comes round to mine, I empty out a drawer where I can hide the damned thing. It’s a cool thing to own, but sometimes I just want to shake it off and pretend I’m a real adult. Buried deep within my boxes of stuff from my last house move, however, is something far nerdier: Final Fantasy 7: Advent Children on Sony’s long-dead UMD format for PSP.
I realise, whispering the letters ‘UMD’ aloud like a word from a forgotten language, that it’s been a decade since the movie sequel to FF7 was released. At the time, I thought it was a superb and appropriately gritty follow-up, and I’d have fought any critics who suggested otherwise (with my words, not my fists, for I am weak). This week I watched Advent Children again and confirmed what I think I already knew at the time: it’s actually a terrible movie with about three or four really good fight sequences in it. It’s 100% fanservice in a way that no other film is. It successfully hints at what a Final Fantasy 7 remake - an idea that seemed remote in 2006 but is somehow now real - might look like. On that level, it works, but I could never argue it’s a good movie in and of itself.
But you know what? I still enjoyed watching it again, even if there was definitely less unbridled acceptance than I had the first time I saw it. And I think that’s okay too. Advent Children is a strange beast. Directed by talented character creator Tetsuya Nomura, it’s a grim, downbeat follow-up that shows FF7’s world two years on as a washed-out landscape where people are dying from a disease called Geostigma. Meanwhile, a bunch of guys who look like 7’s antagonist, Sephiroth, are finding a way to bring him back, while original main character Cloud and his various buddies stand in the way.
The extravagance of this CG movie is out of this world. At two hours long, the Complete Edition released on Blu-ray is definitely far too bloated. It's like someone saying that they’re spending 250 million to adapt this dream you had once, or animating this forum post you made in 2002 under the name seiferxvincent.
It’s a gorgeous reinterpretation of FF7 that pitches it as a world on the brink of apocalypse, though I’d say it’s almost too trim to be compatible with the 7 universe as the PSone original presents it. You could never picture this deeply troubled, miserable version of Cloud dressing up as a woman to sneak into Don Corneo’s mansion, for example, no matter how funny or genuinely sexy that might be. It’s also hard to see what the summon spell Fat Chocobo would look like in a world that looks like it’s suffering some kind of post-nuclear aftermath. I bet the Gold Saucer has turned into some abandoned nightmare theme park. Advent Children is so dour that I think it removed a lot of the genuine fun that the journey of 7 offered.
The main problem is that the story, in its reliance on bringing Sephiroth back from the dead and crowbarring in cameos from the characters you love, can’t help but feel a bit fanfiction-y. But it’s just a bad film in other areas. Some of the dialogue here is worse than anything in 7. Here’s a personal favourite exchange of mine, between Shinra’s Turks Reno and Rude, as well as a couple of the film’s wannabe Sephiroths, Loz and Yazoo (yes, they’re called that). They’re discussing the alien super-god Jenova, which these grey-haired villains see as their mother, before they start fighting.
Reno: “Mother, shmother. It’s Jenova’s freaking head!”
Yazoo: “I will not have you refer to mother that way!”
Loz: “You meanie!”Rude: “Our apologies.”
Reno: “Your ma’s cool. What the hell am I saying?”
It could’ve been lost in translation, I guess. But there are so many corny moments of overcooked dramatic dialogue, random slices of misfiring humour and extended sad posturing vignettes from Cloud that you can’t help but conclude it’s an inferior film, to, say, The Revenant or 2001: A Space Odyssey. Tifa’s frequent use of the misused phrase ‘dilly-dally shilly-shally’ to tell Cloud to stop moping is the most cringeworthy example of bad dialogue. But Advent Children has to be taken in its own terms, too. And more so than perhaps any other spin-off project like it, this was made entirely for the fans of FF7.
They didn’t care what the New Yorker or Jonathan Ross might make of the Aerith dream sequences or Cloud storing multiple swords in the front of his awesome motorbike. They made the film for people who wanted to see those characters again. Even knowing the film isn’t good a decade later, I admire that earnestness from Square Enix, and I think the message it sends about how much they put the fans first is very valuable. You see that mentality in the decision to remake FF7 after so long, too, or 15 being taken in such a different, more contemporary direction following the 13 trilogy’s mixed response.
I might’ve grown out of watching Advent Children, but my 17 year-old brother loves it, and I’m sure many other FF7 fans do too. I can still enjoy it as a guilty pleasure, with a big grin on my face and an oddly pleasant undercurrent of shame, rather than taking it too seriously like I did at the time. But this is the guiltiest of pleasures. The shame levels are very high. And somehow, the shame has become part of the fun.
Last week, Square Enix announced the CG movie Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy 15, featuring an absurdly expensive-sounding cast that’ll provide a whole lot of background for the game itself. For someone like me, for whom the magic of Final Fantasy the games will never wear off, it raises an interesting question: do I have the time to watch a 110-minute cutscene? Can I still watch something like that and take it seriously? The answer in both cases is, probably not. But I think that’s something to do with age, too, and the way your tastes change over time. It happens to everyone. I’m 27 now, and I was 17 when Advent Children first came out, and I like to pretend that my time is more valuable now. I wonder if those who saw Advent Children at the same time a decade ago feel the same way too.
There are different forms of fan service, then, and I’ve learned to draw the line at certain points, but never completely. No-one’s more pleased that Baymax from Big Hero 6 is in Kingdom Hearts 3 than me - and fan service takes on other forms when you’re an adult, like vinyl editions of JRPG soundtracks. I replay 7, 8 and 10 in particular every few years, and that’ll never change. In the last decade, Advent Children, by contrast, has become more fun to make jokes about for me than it is to watch as a film. But even if you know in your heart that your preferred fan service is a niche pleasure, on some level you’ve just got to own that shit. Enjoy the melodrama, the fabulous hair, the sky-high production values - and, if necessary, embrace the ruddy shame of it.