Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within Review
There is a certain irony in the release of this 2001 movie on a next-generation format which, more than likely, will see the disc being played in a machine that is soon going to be privy to a superior video game from the franchise. Let me explain: 2001's Final Fantasy was supposed to be the big breakthrough CGI animated movie that would herald a wave of similar sci-fi/fantasy productions. It was based on the video game franchise of the same name, which started over fifteen years ago, but as most avid Final Fantasy video game fans will know, the various instalments, whilst set in the same vast FF universe, seldom have the same characters - and the movie was no exception. For its time, it looked pretty stunning, but the visuals simply did not make up for a plot and characters (and even action) that simply were not very compelling. Whether or not the production studios invested a ridiculous amount of time and money in animating every single one of the lead character's sixty thousand strands of hair, it did not matter much when the viewer largely did not care for her fate. Similarly, however visually big or grand the 'spirit' monsters were as enemies of the piece, who cares if they fail to be genuinely scary? Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was a monumental box office failure. Now I personally don't think it deserved to do quite so badly, but I can probably see why it did. You see, from a FF fan's point of view, this movie did not pay a respectful enough tribute to the franchise and most ended up preferring to just play the superior games rather than watch a wasted opportunity of a film spin-off in the cinemas. At the same time, newcomers to the whole thing were probably slightly thrown by the movie's title (the 'Spirits Within' bit suggesting it was one of a series) and by the fact that they assumed you would have to know something about the FF universe to fully appreciate the movie. Couple that with the fact that the movie in itself had some major flaws (in my opinion, the aforementioned monsters were one of the biggest mistakes) and relied too much on making a visual impression, and you had a recipe for disaster. And disaster it was, as since Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, we really have seen very few straight, serious animated movies (the humorous alternatives like Shrek are, conversely, still going strong). The irony fully comes into play when you realise that Final Fantasy XIII is about to his the Playstation 3, which is in turn the player that most Blu-ray viewers will probably watch their copy of The Spirits Within on. So the big question is, does the 2001 Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within movie hold its own on this next generation format?
Nearly sixty years into the future, the Earth is plagued by the spirits of alien creatures which crash landed on an asteroid that came from space. Leeching the souls out of any life that they touch, these alien 'Phantoms' are slowly making the Earth a big, barren void, and mankind is facing total extinction. In light of this threat, scientist Dr Aki Ross (who is plagued by dreams of the Phantoms) is determined to collect and unite the eight main Earth life-force spirits scattered around the globe with a view to creating a force powerful enough to destroy the alien presence. To this end, she teams up with her mentor, Dr. Cid, as well as an elite military unit, led by an old flame, Captain Gray Edwards to secure the spirits, while the larger military establishment is plotting a much more radical move to eradicate the alien threat - one which could destroy the soul of the planet itself.
Horribly flawed as it may be, I still quite enjoyed Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. I had never played any of the games (suffice to say I had seen some of the stunning visuals on a friend's Playstation 2) but for some reason assumed that there was a backstory to Spirits Within that only followers of the game would be aware of. As is, this was not the case - the plot was intentionally murky, the characters were purposefully pre-established and much of the movie thus went unexplained. The whole spirits thing, Aki's wierd dreams, the 'phantom' bad guys and the relationships between the characters, I put it all down to stuff that videogame fans would already know all about. And, making this assumption, whilst feeling a little in the dark, I blindly filled in a few gaps and generally sat back to take in the visuals, enjoy a few of the action set-pieces and the reasonably dark sci-fi fantasy universe that it was all taking place in. Sometimes ignorance is bliss, because if I had known that this was indeed the complete story, that the characters were not pre-established and that the story was totally stand-alone, I would have been pretty disappointed.
Still avoiding the topic of visuals, one of the biggest flaws about this movie was the character depth - these guys were just pure caricature. Sure, it does not help that the studios were more interested in bringing supposedly photo-realistic CG characters to the screen, rather than bringing the characters to life, but the point is that the writers really dropped the ball and the voice actors did not hold up their end. Despite the deaths that take place across the narrative, there really were few characters who I felt anything for, least of all the capricious, whimsical, head-in-the-clouds (or, more accurately, in her dreams) lead character of Aki Ross. Bereft of any realistic emotions, her interaction with supposed old flame Gray, is strained at best, and it certainly does not help that Gray is your typical gung-ho marine character. In fact, all of the marines could probably be easily compared to the marines in Aliens, Captain Gray being like Hicks, the comedic Officer Fleming being a little like Hudson, Officer Proudfoot being Vasquez and Sergeant Whitaker being the heavy gunner Drake. This kind of shallow characterisation leaves even the voice actors unable to bring these people to life, and it does not help that few of them were particularly familiar with the skills required to bring animated characters to life using just your voice.
That's not to say the voice talents were not famous, but perhaps that was the downfall, with Aki voiced by Ming Na (who you may know from E.R. or as the voice of Mulan), Captain Gray played by the distinctive Alec Baldwin, and his troops voiced by the likes of Pulp Fiction's Ving Rhames and Reservoir Dogs' Steve Buscemi. Aki's Mentor Dr. Sid is played by the gruff Donald Sutherland (M.A.S.H., Don't Look Now), and the sinister General Hein by the underrated James Woods (Shark, Salvador). They are all great actors, but not necessarily great voice-actors (having a distinctive voice is not the only skill required to make a good voice-actor) and it does not help that they have to work with pretty one-dimensional that give them little room to manoeuvre.
Finally turning to the biggest thing about this movie - the visuals - Final Fantasy once again shows itself as being a flawed work in this respect as well. Whilst many of the images of the movie have got that freeze-frame picture-perfect look (and it should be noted that many of the backdrops are hand-painted), as soon as you bring the characters to life you can see that these are just computer designs. Aki (who is clearly the central focus) displays a distinct lack of expression when it comes to displaying her emotions, and there is even a tiny lag on some of the shots. In trying to be too 'perfect' the filmmakers have overlooked the fact that computer characters behaving accurately like humans may not be feel as authentic as computer characters behaving like actors. They also failed to appreciate the fact that audiences have become accustomed to a certain amount of exaggerated over-expression that has been used in animations for the last few decades to great effect. The end result is that important characters like Aki come across as vacuous and almost perpetually stoned, with more care taken over strands of her hair blowing in the wind than depiction of her actual emotions. The other gripe I have is over the design of the phantom monsters that plague the future world: they may be capable of drain the spirit from your body, may be pretty tough to kill and may be beautifully multicoloured and perfectly wraithlike in appearance but Ghostbusters should have taught filmmakers that the decent colourful spirits can seldom be taken seriously unless (ironically) they are in a comedy.
Basically Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is the benchmark standard for style over substance, and unlike other movies that have tried this (300 being a particular success story), this one falls flat. Sure, it does not deserve quite the amount of flack that it gets, but it deserves quite a lot of it, especially considering the amount of money it cost to make ($137M, recouping little over half of that globally in box office returns). It is a landmark vehicle in that it marks both the birth and death of the 'serious' animated movie (even Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence and Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children - which is a sequel to the game and nothing to do with Spirits Within - did not get anywhere near the release coverage of this movie), and whilst some of the visuals may still be striking by today's standards, the limited characters do not compel you to follow the fantastical plot. Personally, I find it still quite enjoyable to watch, but cannot help but feel that it was a distinctly flawed effort, and one which simply does not satisfy the audiences that it was intended for.