I wrote a review for Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children a while back. In it, I went over some of its problems—it panders, has too many characters for its running time, and breaks its suspension of disbelief more than once. I also briefly touched on Cloud’s depression, which I plan to talk about in more detail today. Advent Children has a lot of things wrong with it, and as a whole, the movie simply does not work. Cloud’s character arc is one of those things. The movie doesn’t know how to handle mental health issues, and that makes Advent Children more than a little painful to watch at times. Cloud suffers from depression, but his depression never contributes to his character arc in a way that matters. Advent Children uses it to set up his internal conflict, but it never resolves his issues. Instead, Cloud’s depression is little more than a gimmick, and the way the movie handles it really drags on the story.
Cloud has a bit of a rough life even before the movie begins. As a small child being raised by a single mother, both he and his mother are shunned by the other people in their town for unexplained reasons. At one point, he’s blamed for nearly getting his childhood friend Tifa killed, when in fact he was trying and succeeded to save her life after she wandered off into some monster-filled mountains. Later on, Cloud joins an army, but he doesn’t make the rank he hopes for. Then, he witnesses his hometown burned to the ground, becomes a victim of human experimentation, and watches his friend Zack be murdered in front of him. All these events happen before the first game starts, and what happens to him in the game isn’t much easier.
Cloud is mind-raped by Sephiroth, gaslit by a scientist named Hojo, and fails to save Aerith’s life. Neither the game nor the movie tells us one way or the other whether he has depression, and while we can argue that failing to mention it at all is a bad form of representation, the game at least specifically calls attention to Cloud’s mental state more than once. Cloud was a much more relatable person during the game—it’s clear he can’t have as much fun or find enjoyment the way everyone else can, and he’s apathetic to things that cause huge emotional reactions in other characters. But despite all that, Cloud still pulls through with the help of his friends. We get to see him bond with other characters, occasionally make some jokes, and go out of his way to take Aerith on a nice date, even though he clearly doesn’t want to at the time. We see that he cares about people, even though he has trouble showing it. But we are not supposed to assume that Cloud is a mentally healthy individual.
So by the time Advent Children rolls around two years later, when Cloud is at the ripe old age of twenty-three, it’s not hard to see why he might suffer from depression. Cloud definitely suffered from depression during Final Fantasy VII, but in the movie, it’s so much more pronounced, and in many ways a bit jarring. In Advent Children, Cloud is a mere shell of a person. Sometimes, on bad days, I describe my depression to people as feeling like a ghoul in a person suit. It’s like being a corpse pretending to still be alive and simply going through the movements. That’s what Cloud’s character also feels like during Advent Children, and although that probably makes him completely unrelatable to many viewers, it’s a characterization that I would wholeheartedly embrace in any other story. We need more stories with heroes suffering from such a widely misunderstood illness.
Cloud’s mental health issues work in Final Fantasy VII because the game takes the opportunity to address why he has those issues and gives his character time to work through them. At one point, the game even puts the plot on hold so Cloud can figure out who he is as a person—which he only manages to do with the help and support of his friend Tifa. This doesn’t solve his problems by any means, but it is a way to help him recover and accept that he has problems so he can continue working through them.
So while Cloud suffers, his character arc is about learning to deal with the trauma, despite his mental health trying to drag him down. We see him deal with Aerith’s death and mourn for her, we see him lose Zack, we see him come to terms with his loved ones dying over and over again, and then we see him move on and form connections with the new people in his life. The game sets up these problems for his characterization and then solves them. Cloud doesn’t have to fully recover from his depression for that to happen—there is no magical cure—but all these things inform his character and complete his arc. This is why Cloud’s characterization in Advent Children is so bad—it’s going backward and undoing what the game just spent fifty-plus hours developing.
Advent Children regresses his character. Cloud spends the movie upset over both Aerith’s and Zack’s deaths. The fact that he couldn’t save them weighs him down, and now he thinks he can’t save anyone despite having the strength to cut buildings in half with a sword. He wants forgiveness, but he doesn’t think he deserves it. And in the end, he pushes all his friends away and keeps them at a distance. But the game already resolved these issues for him.
To Advent Children’s credit, while Cloud is upset over Aerith’s death in the game, he has not yet realized that he doesn’t need forgiveness for it, so the movie could have easily expanded on Cloud’s character this way. Aerith’s death is problematic because she was fridged, of course, and Advent Children is completely unapologetic about using her death to give Cloud manpain. Yes, people die, and it’s possible to feel guilty about it, so while this is not the best storyline, it’s one that’s not necessarily unimportant. Unfortunately, it’s a storyline that’s been done to death and handled better elsewhere—like in the original game.
So as a result, Cloud’s character arc remains incomplete. Advent Children sets up the conflict that Cloud wants forgiveness and doesn’t realize that he doesn’t need it because Aerith’s death was not his fault—but it’s never resolved. Sephiroth comes back to life, they fight each other, Aerith’s ghost helps out, and while Cloud manages to save everyone else’s lives, his guilt over Aerith is never properly addressed. So at the end, when the sky opens up and the sun shines down on Cloud, it’s a visual metaphor for him finding peace and acceptance, but it doesn’t work. Because the battle with Sephiroth doesn’t solve his conflict.
Advent Children could have taken Cloud’s character forward and showed his continuing recovery and struggle to do better in the face of what seems to be a chronic illness, and instead it chose to make him deal with the same problems over and over again. If the movie wanted to go that route, fine—depression can do that to a person—but in that case, Advent Children needed to spend more time with Cloud’s depression and somehow tie that into the final fight with Sephiroth. Compare Advent Children to something like The Babadook. Amelia standing up against the Babadook works as the final conflict and has meaning, because the Babadook is the manifestation of her problems.
But Sephiroth doesn’t represent the same thing for Cloud—he’s one of the main causes of Cloud’s trauma, but he’s not his depression come to life, nor is he the sole reason Cloud has depression. Furthermore, Cloud’s depression doesn’t stop him or hinder him in any way. Sephiroth shows up, Cloud gets scared for a whole second, then fights him. His worry that he can’t save anyone magically disappears, and his depression for some reason no longer holds him back. On top of that, even though the entire game was about him learning to rely on other people, none of Cloud’s friends help him fight Sephiroth in the movie, because he needs to do it on his own for some reason—when Sephiroth was never just Cloud’s problem.
One of the reasons why I like the game so much is because of how it handles disability. It’s hardly perfect, but it’s not insultingly bad, and it calls the audience’s attention to serious issues that real people face. Advent Children, however, takes Cloud’s mental health and neglects to use it in any meaningful way to further his character. It’s now a cheap gimmick so Cloud can look sad for an hour and a half before having an epic sword fight, and that is the real reason why Advent Children fails as a movie.