Final Fantasy is a title that most people in the know would associate with the long-running series of Japanese video games, but my exposure to the franchise was not in games, but in a movie that has absolutely nothing to do with them outside of sharing their title and a fraction of a handful of character names. And to be frank, I am more fascinated by one of the most groundbreaking efforts in 3D animation than I am by watching angsty anime dudes battle each other with dumb-looking giant swords.
To cite its full title, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was released in 2001 and tried to really, REALLY push the boundries in terms of CG movies. After the somewhat cartoon-ish and plastic-looking pictures we’d seen previously in the form of Toy Story, A Bug’s Life and the like, this was a film that aimed to feature human characters that were almost perfectly 100% realistic. Along with The Dark Crystal, it was one of the first DVD’s my dad got for our home, and I recall being greatly fascinated by how much more real it looked than the Pixar films I was normally shown. I will address how well the imagery actually holds up today when I’ve summed up the plot.
The year is 2065. On the Earth, humans are forced to live in sealed-off barrier cities since the invasion of soul-devouring creatures known as “Phantoms”. Plagued by strange dreams of an alien war, Dr. Aki Ross (Ming-Na) is a driven researcher who, along with her sagacious mentor Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland), is seeking a weapon against the Phantoms in the form of eight different “spirit signatures”. These can be everything from scarce surviving plants to Gaia, the very spirit of the Earth itself, apparently. While examining a plant in the middle of an utter wasteland of a city, Aki gets taken in by one Captain Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin‘s voice but seemingly Ben Affleck‘s face) and his rag-tag team of stereotypical action movie side characters. We got ’em all: Steve Buscemi is the funny guy, Ving Rhames is the big black guy, and Peri Gilpin is the tough girl who nobody messes with. We find out that Gray and Aki have a bit of a romantic history, as well.
As Aki is taken to a nearby barrier city, where she and Gray’s soldiers all need to be scanned for Phantom possessions before entering, we’re introduced to the film’s main villain, General Hein (James Woods). He proposes to his high council a more direct way of battling the Phantoms – a powerful cannon/space station known as Zeus – and so he doesn’t trust Aki and Sid’s spiritual methods, and certainly not their controversial claims that firing his weapon at the Earth could fatally damage Gaia. You can guess what manner of climax the disagreement leads to.
Truly, the sheer way in which this movie was even created is something to admire! Its Wikipedia page summarizes the production like so: “Square Pictures rendered the film using some of the most advanced processing capabilities available for film animation at the time. A render farm consisting of 960 workstations was tasked with rendering each of the film’s 141,964 frames. It took a staff of 200 and about four years to complete The Spirits Within.”
The ambition behind Final Fantasy is similar to what James Cameron tried to do with Avatar in 2009: a science fiction film that broke new ground in terms of technology and ways of using our actors. However, whereas Cameron’s film was too obsessed with the visual/technical aspects to bother providing interesting characters (that are three-dimensional in more than one sense, so to speak), a genuinely original and enthralling sci-fi world for them to inhabit, or even a storyline that isn’t just Pocahontas meets Dances with Wolves and the Smurfs, Final Fantasy did it so many miles better.
Yes, Final Fantasy was ALSO about pushing technology, but it didn’t turn it into such a gimmick that the visual effects became the main star of the movie, or even a plot point as with the eponymous Avatars in Avatar. By comparison, Final Fantasy has a good script that could still work and be interesting without the CGI; the CGI is just a cool (and, for the time, original) choice of execution.
The story of Final Fantasy, while it is undebatably derivative of such science fiction films as Aliens and Starship Troopers, is still a none too shabby take on science vs. faith, with General Hein one end of the spectrum and Aki and the spirits on the opposite. It isn’t just a recycled Disney script with miserably bland characters and dialogue. Also, given that it was written and directed by the creators of the original Final Fantasy video games, it is interesting that they relied on tropes and archetypes from American cinema so that, presumably, Western audiences would have an easier time stomaching the movie. It must have worked too because I sure had an easier time wrapping my head around The Spirits Within than I did the more straightforward Final Fantasy film adaptation, Advent Children. Yeah, I’ll talk about that at some point in the future. Or try to anyway.
But even so, the story isn’t what most people paid to see when this film hit theaters. They wanted the visuals. They wanted the new techniques. They wanted to see what was supposed to be the first of many films to star CGI actors. And that’s not fancy wordplay on my part. The creators literally hoped that people would henceforth be using Aki’s character model in future films as an “actor”. So, maybe that’s why the main characters in Frozen look so much like the one in Tangled – the idea of re-using 3D models as “actors” must have caught on… approximately 10 years later!
Truthfully, though, as much as I admire the way this movie challenged the limitations of the technology of the time, today it looks like just about any of your typical sci-fi video games. Even when it was new, I can imagine that it was quickly overshadowed by Shrek, which also had some great-looking 3D models. After all, it was a total bomb at the box office, which sadly meant the end of Square Pictures. It has, however, received a well-earned cult classic status and like other cinematic classics, its goodness is largely about context. It was visually astounding back in the day, and it’s cool to look back on now. By no means is it perfect, although it positively is a fascinating milestone in the history of movies. Also, it has Steve Buscemi in it so what are you folks waiting for?
Down below is a trailer and my final rating. I also apologize for my lack of current reviews as of late, but I’ve been short on time and there hasn’t been much playing in the theaters lately that I deem worthy of my money. (I’ll smack anyone who suggests Fast and Furious 7)