Review: Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)

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When Final Fantasy The Spirits Within came out in early 2001 there was talk not so much about the film itself but about the future of filmmaking. There was a great deal of hype about how realistic this all-CG film was, about how life-like the characters were, right down to individual strands of hair and their eyelashes. There was even, at one point, a fair amount of fear-mongering (at least in the media) about how this film was the way of the future and how real actors would one day not even be needed at all.

That of course hasn’t happened, and the true future of film as it stands perhaps has less to do with challenging the system of filmmaking than it does with challenging convention. Coming out of Squaresoft, a company known worldwide for its Final Fantasy console games, one would have thought that Square Pictures’ Final Fantasy The Spirits Within had a much better chance of commanding a huge portion of the summer film market. It didn’t. and the real shame of it all was not that the film didn’t live up to its hype nor that it was something that was in reality too expensive and lengthy a process to ever be able to replace real actors across the board. No the real shame lay in the fact that it was rarely if ever applauded for its courage.

As a film competing not in an animation market but at the same level as any other major release summer film, it already had a fight on its hands. It’s only been recently that the animated feature has become a force in its own right (as exhibited in the mature narratives and treatments of films like Spirit, Princess Mononoke or even Waking Life), that exceed the youth-orientated market of Disney-like fare. Certainly at the time of its release, The Spirits Within was not enjoying such nationally released peerage.

So already the odds were stacked against it. Tipping the balance was a decidedly anime-like narrative – the strong, independent heroine, the sensitive hero, the almost melodramatic villian and an enemy who in reality inspires a great deal more sympathy than enmity. In the anime world such things are features to be sought, not rejected, but in the Hollywood-dominated world of the action film, they were possibly still a little too complex to ever be received without resistance.

Predictably then, the film fell short of its box-office goals, so short in fact that Square will not be making any more feature films. However in the DVD market The Spirits Within is something that is a stayer in many collections, and for the very reasons it failed at the box office. It looks like a game cut-scene but it is by no means brain candy. The main character, Dr Aki Ross as voiced by the lovely Ming-Na (best known for voicing the main character in Disney’s Mulan and as June Woo in The Joy Luck Club) is very female, quietly strong and imminently interesting. The love interest, Captain Gray Edwards (voiced by Alec Baldwin) is just heroic enough to be likeable and the villain General Hein (played to melodramatic effect by James Woods) actually inspires some sympathy, even in his marvelous megalomania. The technology, vehicle and creature design are phenomenal and there are winning lines galore (thanks mostly to Steve Buscemi’s character Neil Fleming). The narrative’s pace is just the right balance of thoughtful and kick-ass. It is in fact, at least for a sci-fi action/fantasy, somewhat more than many of its analog contemporaries.

Of course, the risks that the film took both financially as well as narratively were too much of a gamble and it defied genre a little too much to ever be hugely successful. As one reviewer I have read pointed out, would anyone have gone to see it had Square not strained the logic in naming this film under the Final Fantasy banner? Aside from the almost in-jokes (all FF games include a wise character named Cid, and Chocobos can be seen in places if you’re paying attention) there are few real connections. It must have disappointed a great many game fans, but in terms of what Square Pictures set out to achieve, and despite their huge losses afterward (out of which Sony bailed them), they at least should have had cause to be proud.

Final Fantasy The Spirits Within has a great deal going for it, especially in its Special Edition DVD incarnation. It offers a solid story with surprisingly 3-dimensional characters (no pun intended) as well as impressive action sequences wonderfully reminiscent of the Aliens series or Starship Troopers (which is no accident since the main General Hein is of course named for Troopers author Robert A Heinlein). Its special features alone are worth owning a copy for, from the absolutely stunning navigational interface to the amusing ‘out-takes’ (especially the intro on the second disc). This is top quality production right down to the details and it’s nice to find that the Square team carried their high standards right through to the delivery stage.

All in all, this is a film that perhaps should have been better received than it was, merely for its bravery and, dare I say it, spirit.

7 Invading Alien Phantoms out of 10.
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