“Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” wanted to change the way movies were made, challenge our ideas of what a movie star could be and radically push forward the possibilities of animation.
Hironobu Sakaguchi and Motonori Sakakibara’s sci animated epic did none of those things, but it damn sure tried. This was the first CGI animated film in which the leads are photo-realistic humans.
The film’s outsized ambitions aren’t just admirable but rather astonishing; had this been the hit many expected, it could have resulted in the biggest reshaping of the movie business model and approach to popular filmmaking since “Star Wars.”
As is, “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” is a noteworthy flop, an under-looked video game adaptation and a curiosity item worthy of our respect, because it dreamed so big.
When we meet Dr. Aki Ross (Ming-Na Wen), she’s dreaming of aliens called Phantoms engulfing her and the world around her. Ross, alongside her mentor, Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) are both open to controversial ideas, namely how science and spirits can co-exist.
The plot is part Robert Heinlein, part earthy mysticism, part philosophical rumination on whether belief in the soul, and Earth having a spirit, has any place in science. It’s a strange, overdone and emotionally distant work. Other than the small doses of comic relief (mostly via Steve Buscemi and the site of CGI humans making out), there is more mind than heart to this.
The film took four years to make and was mostly produced in a studio in Honolulu (that was shut down after the film’s box office failure). The budget was reported to be in the $115-137-million range, with $45 million going towards the “state of the art” Square Films animation studio in Hawaii.
The film’s crushing box office and the fallout that resulted for the future of Square Films was similar to that of “Titan A.E.” the year before, in which Don Bluth’s mammoth sci-fi animated flop ceased operations for future projects for the filmmakers.
In full disclosure, I played “Final Fantasy III” in college and that’s it. Now, the series is currently on its 14th version. It seems the video game franchise has progressed so much, the financial disaster of the film adaptation is a distant figure in the rear view mirror of the creators.
If you see the film cold, unaware of its lengthy history as a best-selling video game, it’s a mixed bag as a sci-fi actioner. It peaks in the second act, when the action resembles “Aliens.” Despite multiple viewings, I still struggle to understand the plot, let alone sound coherent when telling others what it’s about.
Looking at “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” now, it appears more like a video game than the new frontier on animation that it once was. The CGI faces are rarely up to the emotion the actors are trying to project and the movement is video game-level at best.
Elliot Goldenthal’s excellent score, some exciting action sequences and the insane ambition of the whole thing are what make it captivating.
Ming-Na Wen’s breathy, somewhat flat line readings sometimes sound hypnotic, sometimes dull. Alec Baldwin and Sutherland give the most oomph to their vocal performances, though it’s a distraction to hear their vocals servicing characters that look nothing like them.
Odd, how equally recognizable actors like Craig T. Nelson and Samuel L. Jackson can contribute to “The Incredibles” and I can lose myself to those characters but not here.
For example, Buscemi is voicing a handsome comic relief that looks nothing like him. James Woods’ villain resembles an evil Kiefer Sutherland, while Donald Sutherland looks nothing like himself, either, but gives the most feeling to his lines.
At the time of release, the animation wasn’t just beautiful but startling. The trailer gave the impression of nothing less than a game changer, with the big moment being not the sights of fantastical new worlds and aliens but a seemingly real human looking toward the camera and asking, “are you okay?”
There were reports that the studio wasn’t simply aiming to start a new franchise, take animation up to The Next Level and make the first respectable video game movie, but actually planning to transform how movies were made.
Not only would the purported “Final Fantasy” movie series showcase the best of cutting-edge animation for grownups, it could have also expand the possibilities of how to utilize CGI film actors. Namely Dr. Aki Ross, who was rumored to be in the planning stages of having her own movies, or even being spliced into a different film playing a different character.
Imagine Jessica Rabbit playing the mother in “Brave” or Buzz Lightyear showing up in the ensemble cast of “Meet the Robinsons” (admittedly uninspired choices but you get the idea).
Instead of creating a digital actor as vivid as Gollum and as ubiquitous as Dwayne Johnson, Dr. Aki Ross never got farther than a curious centerfold in Maxim Magazine. That Dr. Ross, who was once touted as a CGI thespian avatar, would end up being an afterthought in a massive bomb of a movie and a curious choice for a soft core “men’s interest” magazine, is as fittingly weird as the film itself.
Subsequent, lavish experiments with CGI character realism (“The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” “Beowulf” and “Avatar”) are better both at realistic detail and making characters that evoke our sympathy. When characters die here, it’s a bummer, nothing more.
The humans in “The Polar Express” (2004) are far less believable but I was much more engaged with them and their story.
As a video game film adaptation, there’s an integrity and determination to reach for the cosmos and achieve next-level film art that I still admire, even as the far reaching goals of this experiment has been surpassed.
It may not have changed cinema, but it deserves our respect and another look. Unlike dozens of video game movie adaptations that came and went, “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” is very good, though its overall goals were far more than merely that.