Should I Watch..? 'Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within'
What's the big deal?
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is an animated sci-fi action film released in 2001 and is directed by the creator of the Final Fantasy series of video games, Hironobu Sakaguchi. The film was designed from the outset to be the world's first photo-realistic animated movie, using some of the most advanced processors available and taking a team of 200 staff nearly four years to produce. Despite the film's title, the movie has an original story about the efforts of two scientists to rid the world of an alien menace while trying to prevent a military leader from initiating an all-out war. The film's vocal talents include Ming-Na Wen, Alec Baldwin, Donald Sutherland, Ving Rhames, Peri Gilpin, James Woods and Steve Buscemi. Despite a positive reception from critics, global earnings of just $85 were way below the film's eventual production costs and the film bombed as a result. This financial disaster resulted in the closure of studio Square Picture and plans to feature lead character Aki Ross in other media were shelved.
What's it about?
In 2065, the Earth has been overrun by alien lifeforms known as Phantoms which can kill on contact with any living thing, although minor contact results in an infection. Humanity has retreated to the relative safety of "barrier cities, communities shielded from the Phantoms where efforts are being made to reclaim the Earth. Two such scientists, Aki Ross and her mentor Dr Sid, have discovered that the Phantoms can be defeated by combining eight spirit signatures and Aki sets off to the ruins of New York to locate one such spirit signature.
Quickly finding herself outnumbered by Phantoms, Aki is rescued by Gray Edwards and his "Deep Eyes" squad comprising of Ryan Whittaker, Neil Fleming and Jane Proudfoot. Due to their previous relationship, Aki convinces Gray to help her and Dr Sid in their quest but time is against them. Megalomaniac general Hein has developed a mighty space-weapon called Zeus which he believes will end the conflict once and for all although Aki suspects that it could result in catastrophic environmental damage. And for Aki herself, time is even more precious as she has been infected by a Phantom...
Dr. Aki Ross
Capt. Gray Edwards
Hironobu Sakaguchi (co-director Motonori Sakakaibara)
Al Reinart & Jeff Vintar*
Release Date (UK)
3rd August, 2001
Action, Animation, Adventure, Sci-Fi
What's to like?
Without question, the film's lasting legacy will be the giant leaps forward in terms of animation made by Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. The film is easily one of the best looking and imaginative animation films you'll see anywhere - considering that this was only six years after the birth of the CG movie with Toy Story, this film is Concorde in an era when all other animated films are in biplanes. When contemporary critics compare the animation favourably with later movies like Avatar, you know that you've got something special on your hands.
It isn't just the film's appearance that is breath-taking. Each character looks uncannily like a genuine person, despite the fancy vehicles and monsters on show. Take Aki Ross, for example - a character so fully realised (and brought to life by Ming-Na Wen's voicework) that she could possibly pass of as human if she were inserted into something like Star Wars - she's considerably more believable than the likes of Jar Jar Binks or Maz Kanata from The Force Awakens. You can't help but applaud the producers for the sheer amount of effort required to not only make the film look this good but future-proof it for years to come. Even today, I have not seen an animated film that looks better than this and that's not for the lack of trying. This is a milestone for the genre and it still stands up today.
- The total production time for the film was four years - by the time the film was finished, they had to redo earlier scenes because technology had overtaken them. The film contains 141'964 frames, each one taking 90 minutes to produce. Square Pictures ended up with 15 terabytes of artwork by the end of production. It's estimated that the total time spent on the film by the 200 staff is around 120 years.
- Not surprisingly, the film's budget spiralled out of control. Originally pitched at around $70 million, the film ended up costing $137 million. $45 million was spent on Square's animation studio in Hawaii.
- Aki Ross appeared in Maxim magazine's Hot 100 list in 2001, placing 87th. She is the first and only non-existent person to ever make that list. Her only other appearance to date was in a promotional video made for The Wachowskis which led to the creation of Final Flight Of The Osiris, a short animation to prelude The Matrix Reloaded that was incorporated into The Animatrix anthology.
What's not to like?
It is one of cinema's greatest tragedies that a film so gorgeous and lovingly created as Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is so deficient in terms of entertainment. The story doesn't make a whole heap of sense while the Phantoms themselves are oddly designed and lack the evil presence that all movie bad guys must possess. And despite the countless man-hours put in to make Dr Aki Ross' hair flow across her face just right, the script strips back the characters humanity by making them sound like characters in a game. You're never emotionally invested in the story so the film just kinda… happens.
Personally, the film's biggest mistake was ignoring the game series that spawned it. While each Final Fantasy game is different from the last one in terms of story-telling and setting, one has to wonder why the film-makers decided on an original story instead of adapting the most popular game in the series, Final Fantasy VII, which broke new ground for the franchise when it was released in 1997 - the same year production started on this film. It just seemed like a no-brainer but for whatever reason, they chose to forge their own path. The film doesn't especially scream anything about the games to me other than the film's use of the Gaia hypothesis, a common theme also used in a number of the games. But frankly, if they'd just called the film The Spirits Within and withheld the Final Fantasy licence, I can't imagine too many people getting upset.
Should I watch it?
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is not the best animated film in the world - it's too boring in places and not especially entertaining. What it is, however, is the film with the best animation. Even today, the film stands head-and-shoulders above any other fully animated film you could mention in terms of details and realism and I suspect that it will do for many more years to come. As a technical showpiece, it is still absolutely astounding but it's unfortunately not as enjoyable to watch as perhaps it should be.
Great For: setting the benchmark for CG animation, bankrupting studios, teenage boys' imaginations
Not So Great For: providing much entertainment, fans of Final Fantasy games (especially VII), Maxim's Hot 100
What else should I watch?
Video game adaptations have always been difficult for Hollywood to handle, proving to be beyond the skills of respected directors like Mike Newell and Duncan Jones to reviled directors like Uwe Boll and Paul W.S. Anderson's increasingly stale Resident Evil series. The most successful so far in terms of critical response happens to be the most recent effort, Rampage, featuring Dwayne Johnson teaming up with a giant albino gorilla to fend off other giant monsters from destroying Chicago. It hasn't quite beaten the box office total of Jones' Warcraft but it may well do by the time this article gets published. However, don't take that as a recommendation - reviews have still been pretty mixed and given The Rock's usual success, I feel the film has ridden his coat-tails somewhat.
Anyone waiting for a film version of Final Fantasy VII mustn't give up hope just yet. In 2005, a direct-to-DVD anime movie called Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children was released and served as a standalone story set three years after the events of the game and using many of the game's characters. And if you're too young to remember playing Final Fantasy VII, don't worry - Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV runs parallel to the events of Final Fantasy XV and is the most recent direct-to-DVD anime. Neither of these films match The Spirits Within in terms of visual splendour but are much closer to the spirit and feel of the games.
© 2018 Benjamin Cox