Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.
Groundbreaking CGI for a Box Office Flop
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within being released in theaters. The film sunk at the box office making only $32.1 million domestically and $85.1 million worldwide on a $137 million budget. When it was released on DVD, the film made an additional $26.6 million in video rental sales; 83.4% of its domestic box office gross. Square Pictures would go on to develop Flight of the Osiris for The Animatrix, but would ultimately close down shortly thereafter mostly thanks to the box office failure of this film.
The film is the directorial debut of Hironobu Sakaguchi, who created the Final Fantasy video game series. He would never direct another film after Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. The screenplay for the film reportedly went through 50 different renditions before finally settling on the one put to film. Two decades after its release, The Spirits Within hasn’t aged as well as it could have. The storyline is generic and has fragments of its previous story ideas that ultimately lead to nothing or have no explanation whatsoever in the final cut.
The unfortunate aspect is that The Spirits Within fails to establish its own identity despite the creator of the franchise choosing to distance the film from the video game source material entirely. The film ultimately feels like borrowed concepts from sci-fi films that came out around the same time. The Deep Eyes squadron feels like a direct rip off of the Sulaco team of marines from Aliens with Jane seemingly being direct homage to Private Vasquez.
The bug-like appearance of the Phantoms and their ongoing war with the military is reminiscent of Starship Troopers. Even the dream sequences, specifically the Phantoms being incinerated as their planet is destroyed, are like a direct reference to Sarah Connor’s apocalyptic dreams in Terminator 2. And The Phantoms themselves seem like direct influence for the Sentinels in The Matrix.
To be fair though, The Spirits Within was groundbreaking for its time. This is the first computer-animated film to utilize photo realistic characters. Remington Scott’s motion capture work on the film would ultimately lead to him being hired to help create Gollum for The Lord of the Rings films. Watching the special features for the film, it’s bizarre to see how they animated the film. Most of the movement was captured by actors in the mostly traditional black mocap suits with weird white balls all over them that are used to track their movement. But hand and facial movements were all done manually. Voice acting was recorded by different actors and video of them saying their lines was then viewed side by side with their CG counterparts as animators keyed their mouth movements in manually.
By today’s standards, the animation has impressive elements but mostly looks unfinished. The film took four years to complete and animators seemed to get a lot of little details right. Aki’s hair specifically is incredible. She had 60,000 hairs that had to be animated fully and separately from one another. The pores in these characters faces are also quite detailed for the time with veins and wrinkles feeling fairly natural as they speak. The film itself has 141,964 frames and each frame took 90 minutes to render. All of the backgrounds in the film are hand painted matte paintings.
But the animation ultimately suffers from lacking proper human emotion. The characters appear realistic enough, but generally never show the proper human level of emotion. This goes for the film’s storytelling, as well. You’re never emotionally invested in the events of the film. The on-screen characters rarely smile or frown or have a facial expression that doesn’t make them look constipated. However, digital special effects and CGI wouldn’t be where it is today without what animators learned while doing this film and it was an incredible start for the turn of the century.
Human Souls: Phantoms Can't Eat Just One
Interestingly enough, the most enjoyable aspect of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is the Phantoms themselves. Their origin is this convoluted mess. Their planet is seemingly destroyed by General Hein and the Zeus cannon, but visions of their impending doom are transmitted to Aki while she sleeps; in what has to be a record for dream sequences in a film (there’s at least six, you lose count). The ghosts of these dead aliens float around and kill humans by devouring their essence, their being, or what is perhaps their very soul.
The Phantoms have a jellyfish like appearance as they float around as these ethereal orange-glowing creatures that phase through solid objects like walls and the ground below them. In Aki’s dreams, the Phantoms are mosquito like in appearance thanks to the armor they wear. They’re kind of like the Prawns from District 9 with Tetsuo’s mechanical arm from Akira. Some of the jellyfish Phantoms look like these mosquitos, but most of them look like other bugs like beetles or spiders and are Godzilla-like in size. We never see where those other bugs originate from since they’re not in Aki’s dreams.
Like most concepts in the film, the Phantoms are mostly flat overall. Their design is also a bit lacking. After Hein repeatedly fires the Zeus cannon at the crater in the film, the Phantoms that emerge are this mass of orange colored tentacles. These tentacles are littered with veins and give the impression that the on-screen characters are trapped within a giant human testacle. Maybe it’s the fact that so much is taking place on screen in this final act, but the animation is at its weakest here with details appearing like nothing more than blobby globule-infested disasters.
The downside is that it’s so difficult to find a high-resolution image of the Phantoms. Screen captures from the film itself mostly result in blurry images with little to no details. You have to see them in motion while watching the film. Technology just wasn’t there yet to provide a clear static image of these creatures. Maybe they’re easier to make out on the Blu-ray since the two-disc DVD set was all that was available at the time of this writing. But it mostly feels like a time before 4K and a time before super high resolution in the computer programs used to animate films like this at the turn of the 21st century.
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within isn’t a great film to dive into after a two decade hiatus. It accomplished so much for CGI, animation in film, and motion capture, so it’s a shame it’s as disappointing as it is. Like so many sci-fi films that came before and after it, The Spirits Within have one-dimensional creatures that steal the film but aren’t showcased enough and fail to be explored to their full potential.
© 2021 Chris Sawin
Rachelle Williams from Tempe, AZ on February 02, 2021:
I remember that I was obsessed with this film when it first came out, I can hardly believe that was 20 years ago. The story captivated me, the graphics had me shook and trying to figure out some of the famous voice actors in the film cool to me - I think I remember Ming Na Wen, Donald Sutherland, David Keith, Peri Gilpin, Ving Rhames.
I don't think I ever made the connection between Jane and Private Vasquez from Aliens (1986), but that is a good catch! Thank you for bringing this little gem back into my counsciousness, I think I'll have to re-watch it sometime this week!