Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

| July 18, 2001

Sometimes you just have to wonder who’s running Hollywood. I mean, is it a bunch of baby boomers nostalgic for the TV shows they grew up on? Or is it their kids raised as Nick-at-Night addicts who weren’t even a proverbial gleam in their parents’ eyes when the shows first aired. Or a bunch of geeks who are still jonsing for the comic books of their youth. Or “extreme” kids who think twitch games on their computers really are saying something deep. Take your pick. Any way you slice it, we (the general movie-going audience) usually lose. For every Brady Bunch Movie there’s a cinematic Beverly Hillbillies. For every X-Men there’s a long unreleased Fantastic Four.
After numerous misguided attempts to make decent to pretty damn good video games into mediocre to god-awful films (Super Mario Brothers anyone?), Hollywood gets it right with Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Okay, you’re right, it’s not Hollywood after all, but a joint production with Japan, which already has a long-running franchise of Final Fantasy films. But before we become bogged down in details…
Go see Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. No, I haven’t seen the other 10 or so movies of the series made in Japan. My understanding is that they have different characters and different scenarios, so in a sense, it’s the Title “Final Fantasy” that’s a franchise, not the characters or storyline. Nor have I played the game(s). Though I know they inspire fierce loyalty and awe among many of my friends. So I’m just reacting to the film on the screen in front of me. And I like it. Is it a great film? No. Is it a landmark? Perhaps; certainly, the PR would want you to think so, and it may be the new century’s Tron, meaning that 20 years from now it might not be held in high respect as a film but acknowledged as a forerunner of specific animation techniques. More importantly:
Is it fun? Yes.
Anticipating a big crowd, I went to the first show of opening day, having avoided most of the pre-release hype (and touring excerpts screened to whet people’s appetites several months ago). As the start time of the picture neared, I got worried, because I was being surrounded by rowdy adolescent boys–lots of them. Now by adolescent, I mean anywhere from 14 to 24 or so. By rowdy, I mean…loud.
I began grinding my teeth in preparation for sitting through a movie once again where the audience thinks it’s a frat party. Never mind that my most notorious examples of bad movie-going experiences have been older audience members holding full volume conversations during the movie, apparently thinking they were at some dimly lit cocktail party. Those events conveniently out of sight, out of mind, I tend to think it’s all “those young folks” who disrupt my movie viewing on a regular basis.
So I was thinking that my strategy to go to a morning screening had backfired; it wasn’t going to be the distraction-free experience that I had hoped.
But when the movie started, this noisy crowd of boys settled into the most reverent silence I have ever experienced in a movie theater. They were here to watch the film. And they believed.
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within stands apart from all the other films out there because of its animation, the rendering of characters and world into something that reminds us of reality but that isn’t quite reality. Now some folks will try to tell you that you’ll forget you’re watching animation. Does that mean you’ll think you’re watching real actors? No. I never once “forgot” these weren’t human actors. But this sure ain’t anything like the animation techniques of, say, Atlantis (though both films share a certain new age sensibility).
The lead female character’s movements are so human-like that, yes, in many of the long shots you might think that she could be real. The various secondary characters’ movements are a bit stiffer, but they’re smoother than any animation you’ve seen before. And all of the characters are calculatedly attractive.
But clearly it’s the lead female character, Aki, who has been labored over the most. Her hair, eyes and body movements are exceptional, though her skin tone and texture, particularly in the close-up of her hands, are clearly not human and have a certain plastic quality. Impressive, yes, but not life-like. Her older mentor fairs better, his aging skin providing enough texture to counteract the qualities inherent in the computer rendering of the younger characters’ skin.
The only time the audience seemed to break from the film’s reality was when a few teeters of uncomfortable laughter were generated by the passionate kiss between Aki (Ming-Na) and Gray (Alec Baldwin). There’s something just a bit disorienting at seeing two not-quite-people kiss so earnestly. Though the kiss made sense in the story, it is one of the few times I’ve really felt voyeuristic watching a screen kiss. Let’s not think on the irony of that too long, okay?
As you might expect, the production design is breath taking. Appropriately, many of the aircraft are reminiscent of bird and animal shapes, and Aki’s dreams, the ruins of New York City and the domes in which the surviving humans live are each rendered in gorgeous detail. The advantage to having the characters and the production design all computer-generated is that the world on the screen seems seamless and complete.
Beyond the animation, the other “first-rate” element of the film is the voice-over casting. All of the organic actors lend a believable voice to the digital actors. Ming-Na (perhaps best known for Mulan) is flawlessly expressive as Aki, mysterious and alluring, and Baldwin’s voice gives his much younger alter ego a sexy confidence and maturity often lacking in young male leads who think maturity is the same as ironic bravado.
Steve Buscemi (as Neil) does some of his best work ever. And Frasier’s Peri Gilpin does nicely as Jane Proudfoot, though without a lot to do except quip with Neil. Ving Rhames (Ryan), James Woods (General Hein) and, in particular, Donald Sutherland (Dr. Sid) bring a much needed emotional dimension to the digital rendering. All of the voices are so intrinsically linked to the characters we see on screen that they seem inseparable. It was almost jarring to read the credits at the end. Kudos to the casting director, the actors and the team that synced digital bodies to organic voices.
As for the plot, this is basically a ghost story, relatively simple but with some nice touches. It’s the kind of story that works best in animation; as live action it would be potentially laughable. At times I was even reminded of the movie Alien and the book Speaker For The Dead. Not bad references for a film to evoke. But the villain is too simplistic, too quick in his emotional beats to come across as fully real or dimensional, though the other characters have fairly consistent arcs. I found myself caring about what happened to Aki and Grey, and at a metaphoric level, the film flirts with infection and disease.
Japanese writer/director Hironobu Sakaguchi and co-writer Jeff Vintar (whose previous film is a German Film Noir) have crafted a film that stands apart from its video game origins. Infinitely more satisfying than Tomb Raider, this film sets the bar for adaptations of video games to feature film format. And not just because of the animation techniques. Yes, they’re impressive. They story is decent. The voice actors are great. But…
The main reason to see Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is because it’s one of the few times when you’ll see something you’ve never seen before. A type of movie you’ve never seen before. Watching it, you know it’s not a cartoon. You know it’s not live action. Artificial. Real. Somehow it seems to be both. And neither. How many times has that happened to you, not counting the very first movie or television image you ever saw (if you could even remember that). In that sense, this film is a landmark. Something new. Something not seen before. For that alone, it’s amazing. And worth seeing.

About the Author:

Josef Steiff Joe Steiff would gladly spend his days and nights watching movies and TV with a little writing on the side. Oh, and teach at Columbia College in Chicago. And maybe play Mass Effect. But sleep gets in the way. He's made a few films. edited Popular Culture and Philosophy volumes on Battlestar Galactica, Anime, Manga and Sherlock Holmes for Open Court Books, wrote The Complete Idiot's Guide to Independent Filmmaking and is a co-author of Storytelling Across Worlds: Transmedia for Creatives and Producers.
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