Monday, October 28, 2013

Cuaron's Gravity and the Final Fantasy VIII Connection

Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity (2013) is a movie that seems to me, in many places, evocative of video games, and I don't mean that in a disparaging way. There are, of course, the first-person moments that remind me of first-person shooters, and the narrative escalates with relentless momentum as a somewhat game-esque series of trials. But watching Gravity also made me think of one of my favorite games of yore, Square's Final Fantasy VIII (1999) for the original PlayStation. No, I don't mean "gravity" magic (Demi and Diablos and so on and so forth). I'm talking about this:


SPOILERS for Gravity and Final Fantasy VIII

In Gravity, one unfortunate astronaut meets his end early on, when he gets caught in the sweep of a debris field. When Sandra Bullock later retrieves his body, she finds, to her and the audience's horror, that a piece of debris colliding with the man's helmet has left a gaping pit where a person's face should be. The scene recalled, for me, the above image, which appears for a single frame during the ending of Final Fantasy VIII.

The image, apparently of main character Squall with a black hole in place of his face, comes and goes so quickly as to be nearly imperceptible when viewing the game at normal speed. Most players probably finish Final Fantasy VIII completely unaware that such a thing exists. I only learned of it when, in recent years, a few players on the NeoGAF forum began spreading the "Squall is dead" theory, which postulates that Squall actually dies from a wound suffered at the end of the first disc, and the entire rest of the game is just the incoherent final dreams flaring from his fading brain activity. The theory is, more than anything else, just a testament to people's ability to rationalize toward any outlandish literary analysis imaginable.

It is true, however, that the "faceless Squall" image is perplexing. In fact, although Final Fantasy VII used to get a lot of flack for its inscrutable ending (before Advent Children made a lot of people wish they had just left well enough alone), I think it was more so the abruptness of it all, after 50 hours invested, that left a bad taste in players' mouths. Final Fantasy VIII's ending, on the other hand, contains some truly enigmatic imagery, made all the more so by the fact that there's not a lot of context, there's no dialogue through the entire pre-rendered portion of it, and the whole time travel angle makes it practically impossible to get a clear grasp of the continuity.

This is all getting away from the Gravity connection. Which is to say, there really is no connection, most likely. The one faceless image just made me think of the other.

One could perhaps draw some thematic connections. Final Fantasy VIII, as I read it, is a story about people suffering misfortunes—orphans, most of them—then coming to a pivotal point, when they at last decide (with a little help from their friends) to be no longer defined by the things that happened to them (or haunted by pasts they can't even remember, so hollow were their childhoods!), but rather by their will to shape their own lives. That's kind of like the arc that the Sandra Bullock character in Gravity goes through. She does her job, doesn't really seem engaged beyond that, then gets flung around when things go south, before finally assuming agency over her own life and deciding to make every effort to survive.

So maybe there are some broad thematic similarities between Final Fantasy VIII and Gravity. But, yeah, you could probably build a far stronger case that Cuaron borrows scenes from, say, Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars (2000), a movie that I loathe and would be loath to credit for anything positive.

Final Fantasy VIII does have an outer space segment, if you'll recall. The below image is also taken from the ending, coming a little before the faceless Squall:


And this one, of Rinoa with the glass on her helmet shattered, comes almost immediately after the Squall image:


Both images reference the earlier segment in the game—the one part that, on close inspection, does bear a more than passing resemblance to Gravity—when Rinoa is cut loose and left drifting in space, her oxygen rapidly depleting. In typical PS1-era Final Fantasy fashion, players are then made to act it out as a crude timed mini-game, where one must clumsily direct Squall into a collision course with the drifting Rinoa, so as to reach her before her oxygen runs out. Of course, in the actual segment, Rinoa's mask never shatters, because the player, as Squall, is supposed to retrieve her just in the nick of time. So what does the image immediately above signify? Who knows. Maybe Alfonso Cuaron got something out of it.