|Written by:||Al Reinert, Jeff Vintar|||||Directed by:||Hironobu Sakaguchi|||||Release Date:||2001|
I've been writing about video games for a long time now, over five years in fact, and it's starting to become a dull routine for me to be honest. I need to widen my scope, pick a new subject, try something different! I mean I'm still fascinated by games and I always will be, but I have a very slight obsession with science fiction as well and it'd be nice to shift gears and focus on that for a while.
So this week on Sci-Fi Adventures, I'm writing about a science fiction movie! Because I do that now.
Speaking of trying something new, 'Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within' was the debut movie from Square Pictures, the video game company's new computer animated film division. And it was also the last, because it bombed so hard. They'd would only work on one more project, the 'Final Flight of the Osiris' short for the 'Animatrix', before being shut down. I guess if you keep using 'Final' in your titles it will eventually come true.
I'm not sure the movie failed because it was based on a video game though, because I've seen this before and I know full well that it ain't based on any 'Final Fantasy' games I've played. But this isn't a case of a movie studio taking a brand name and doing their own thing with it, as it was conceived and directed by 'Final Fantasy' creator Hironobu Sakaguchi himself! His very first film in fact, and also his last.
Despite its utter failure, Spirits Within was a pretty important milestone in cinema, as it's the first full-length 'photorealistic' motion captured animated movie. A proper big-budget serious cartoon aimed at adults starring humans, four years in the making! To give it a bit of context, it came out 6 years after Toy Story (the first full length CG movie) and around the same time that 'Final Fantasy X' hit the PlayStation 2. So yes, it really is 15 years old at the time I'm writing this.
(I'm basically going to go ahead and spoil this entire movie one scene at a time now, so please stop right here unless you're okay with that).
I'd make a joke about wanting to press START and skip to the gameplay, but honestly if what I'm seeing here was a game cutscene, I'd rather watch it to the end. Assuming it was three minutes and not two hours that is.
This is Doctor Aki Ross, played by Ming-Na Wen. She was working on TV series 'ER' at the time, but I know her better from 'Street Fighter', 'Stargate Universe' and 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' Yep, she's been in two video game movies. Director Hironobu Sakaguchi intended Aki to be a synthespian virtual star for Square Pictures, showing up in their later movies in different roles, but yeah that didn't work out.
Suddenly the ground starts shaking and Aki wakes up. So we learn that it was all a dream, one that she's recording for some reason.
The Final Fantasy games always build up to the player getting their own airship, which gives them the freedom to travel the entire world map, but Aki basically just starts off with one. It's an interesting design too, even if it is entirely grey from nose to tail. Thing is though, it doesn't come with a name, and it's impossible to love an unnamed spaceship. You just can't do it.
Well okay it's apparently known as the 'Black Boa', but it's never called that in the actual film.
Aki reveals in her internal monologue that it's been 34 years since 'they' arrived on this planet, meaning that they turned up during 2031. It's set on December 13th, 2065 by the way, so if the the story goes on long enough it'll turn into a stealth Christmas movie!
I love this holographic wrist computer by the way. I've heard that the movie was an inspiration for the visual design of the Mass Effect games, and I'm definitely seeing that in the holographic interfaces.
Suddenly a bunch of space marines drop in, using clouds of green gas to soften their landing. It's been 15 years since this movie came out and scientists still haven't invented that stuff yet, it's shameful. The marines want Aki out of Old New York on account of the place being full of monsters, but she distracts them with a monster and runs off to find whatever it is she came here for.
This movie is really incredibly well animated by the way, making good use of motion capture (for their movement at least, not their faces). Of course all high budget animated movies and cutscenes look this good these days, but this came out just two years after Final Fantasy VIII set the bar for semi-realistic looking 3D animation and it looks a whole generation ahead.
I'm less impressed with the banter from the marines though.
"Tell me we're not risking our necks for this plant."The Final Fantasy games are known for letting the player assemble a team of wildly different heroes, each with their own style and fighting technique. The movie on the other hand gives Aki a team of identical space marines with rifles. Wearing knee-length shorts.
"I wouldn't even call it a plant, it's a weed."
"I wouldn't even call it a weed".
This is Barrier City #42, so humanity might be in bad shape but we're not quite putting all our eggs in this one basket. Personally I think they should've gone with a more typical dome shape for their barrier though, as the 'rubbish circus tent' look is just a mess.
So the voice actors are fairly fantastic, but they're not given much to work with I'm afraid. Imagine if you took the marines from 'Aliens' and sucked the life and wit out of them, that's kind of what these three are like. Oh plus there's also Alec Baldwin, playing their boss Captain Gray Edwards, who I'll be calling Captain Gray from now on.
You know I have to give the creators credit for putting the soldiers and scientists in sensible clothes that actually cover them. I don't much want my Final Fantasy movie to look like 'Battlestar Galactica', but if that's what they had their heart set on, then I'm glad they didn't half-ass it and add an anime warrior princess walking around in her battle bikini to sex things up.
Fortunately there's a holographic treatment device right here, so Aki has a chance to show off her surgeon skills and save his life. It's a basically a game of Trauma Center, with Aki trying to target the squiggly squirming Phantom so she can zap it with her bio-etheric laser. And she gets the bastard with 1.02 seconds left on the clock.
Obviously getting scanned is a really sensible thing that everyone should do, but Aki herself wants none of it. Fortunately for her a friend drops by to help her bypass the procedure and get her inside.
Together they analyse the plant wave form in their lab and determine that it really is the sixth spirit! Uh, what?
Seems that 20 years ago, Dr. Sid discovered spirit energy in the Phantoms, along with every other living thing, and now they use that energy to power their guns and shields. He basically saved the human race, and this has earned him a fair amount of credibility as a scientist.
So they've apparently discovered scientific evidence of an afterlife, but they can't tell anyone about it or else the council is going to shut them down. There's nothing controversial about ghosts though. People here don't just believe in them, they use them in place of fossil fuels!
Sid's genuinely worried though, and decided to drop his treasured 43 year old diary into the incinerator. He tells Aki to destroy any notes that could be used against her as well, as the council can't be allowed to learn what he believes in.
We learn here that the Phantoms came from a meteor, and General Evil is eager to just shoot it with his giant space laser and eliminate them at the source! Sorry, I mean General Hein (I guess they thought General Heinous would be too obvious). He's played by James Woods, he dresses like Albert Wesker, and he wants to kill things now!
Dr. Sid's opposed to the plan, as shooting a laser that strong at the Earth might hurt or kill Gaia! The council mumbles in shock and outrage. He has a more sensible plan in mind though: find the last two crystals! Uh, spirits I mean. See, if they can find the right set of eight spirits they can assemble a spirit wave that will cancel out the bio-etheric energy of the invading Phantoms! I'm starting to see why he was worried people would think he was mad.
Hein calls this idea utter nonsense, and it's hard not to agree with him even when every word out of his mouth drips with menace and he's got "I AM THE ANTAGONIST" written all over his frowny face. But Aki has brought evidence that their plan can work. The six spirits they've assembled so far are in a chest plate right now keeping a terminally infected Phantom victim alive... and it's her.
Unfortunately Captain Gray's squad decides to sabotage the lift that these two are in, to trap them there for a bit and hopefully kick-start a romance subplot. Their 3D mannequins are almost showing some real emotion here, as they have a bit of an argument and then make up, but I keep getting distracted by Aki's hair. It falls very naturally and probably took forever to render, but it's supernaturally straight.
But then there's a weird transition, as the camera pulls out from their window to reveal the city outside, and one skyscraper in particular.
Gray's informed that his Deep Eyes squad has been assigned to guard Aki on her mission to collect the 7th spirit. But they want him to watch her, in case she's being manipulated by that Phantom inside her. And we know that she is, as she's been having dreams.
She has another dream here actually, this time with giant metal pods falling from the sky. They open up to reveal alien soldiers in power armour and the place soon becomes a battlefield, with Aki caught between two groups of warriors. Then they suddenly stop and she wakes up. Seems like we're a few dreams away from learning what all that was about, which isn't good news for Aki, as the dreams are a sign that the spirits within are starting to win.
On the plus side we get a bit of actual sunlight for once! So the Phantoms haven't entirely blocked out the sun. I was beginning to think that this entire movie would take place in grim darkness.
The Deep Eyes dropped energy buoys to distract the Phantoms, but they don't achieve much but to make the Phantoms visible for a bit. The Phantom inside Aki is getting stronger, and the other Phantoms in the area are being drawn to her. They find the 7th spirit inside a dead soldier's energy pack and get back to the plane without much trouble, but Aki falls unconscious and Hein's men don't like that.
So the suits can't save you from being infected, they can't save you from having your soul torn out, and they can't save you from a pistol round? Makes me wonder why they bother with them at all.
Aki has a very Terminator 2 dream here of the aliens all getting nuked on their homeworld and bolts awake, getting a shot to the chest from the startled soldier! Fortunately her Phantom containment unit can take a bullet, so she's alive.
I'm pretty sure the pilot's called Neil though, and he manages to fly the ship into part of a Phantom here. I honestly can't tell if it was deliberate move, but the Phantom miraculously misses all of Gray's squad and hits one of Hein's soldiers instead, tearing out his soul.
That'll teach him for starting pointless drama in the middle of an exciting escape. Plus we got a nice horrific death scene out of it.
Aki wasn't doing great even before getting shot, but Dr. Sid should be able to give her more time using the 7th spirit (somehow), with Captain Gray doing a mind meld to give her some support while she's unconscious. So that's apparently a thing they can do now.
He finds her inside a dream and together they discover the truth about the Phantoms.
You never know what you're going to get from an exploding planet do you? Sometimes it's a super powered invulnerable alien who spends his free time saving humanity, sometimes it's a super powered unstoppable army of alien spectres who would rather eat our souls. And we didn't even get any kryptonite in the bargain this time.
Dr. Sid's procedure saves Aki's life for the time being, but they're all thrown in a cell by General Hein's men. And that's about the halfway point of the movie.
We learn that Hein's wife and daughter were killed by ghosts, and it seems like the movie's finally going to humanise him a little. But nope, he's just explaining the inspiration for his latest cunning plan. He's going to shut down part of the barrier for a bit and let some Phantoms slip inside the city! His tragedy turned him into a lunatic who literally wants to shoot a giant gun at the Earth, so maybe if he gives the council members a bit of tragedy they'll let him pull the trigger!
And then the Phantoms get into the pipes and start slaughtering everyone in New York. Oops.
On the plus side this does cause a power cut, letting our heroes simply walk out of the world's smallest jail cells. That's actually a pretty Final Fantasy thing to happen. Especially as they follow it with up with an escape scene in a truck, as the city goes to hell around them. For a moment I almost forgot I was watching a film and started dreading the inevitable turret level.
They're planning to come back and rescue him after they get some tools from the Black Boa, but first they need some power cells, so Jane goes to sort that out. Hey, she's called Jane! And Dr. Sid just called Ving Rhames' character Ryan. Wow, I feel like I've finally been introduced to these people.
R.I.P. Neil, he died before saying anything genuinely funny.
Ryan's still alive enough to lure the giant monster that killed his team mates away from Aki's ship using excessive firepower, but it doesn't help much. Nothing helps much, these ghosts seem pretty much unkillable. Because they're ghosts.
Resident Evil 5.
Gray does his best to make a heroic sacrifice along with the rest of his squad, but Aki flies the Boa close enough for him to do a Commander Shepard jump and get pulled inside by Dr. Sid. They fly to space, and the animators finally get their chance to show off a full CG animated kiss. Between Aki and Gray I mean, not Gray and Dr. Sid.
But they're not the only ones escaping to space right now, as General Hein's found himself a shuttle.
Hein puts the gun to his head and for a moment it looks like he's going to remove himself from the plot due to the guilt of wiping out an entire city, but nope!
It's funny because every single character in this movie has the same overall goal, they're all on the same side. Hein is just so aggressively wrong about everything he believes and every choice he makes that he has made himself into the villain. Also the leather coat and gloves, those made him the villain too. Plus the constant sneer.
The three remaining heroes manage to locate their 8th spirit... and it's in the impact crater from when the meteor hit 34 years ago. Pretty much the last place in the world they want to be right now, and not just because Hein's aiming at it. Dr. Sid has a plan though. They'll go down there, combine the spirit with the 7 already inside Aki's chest plate, and... wait and see if the movie ends. Seriously, their plan is 'collect spirits, ..., profit' and Gray even calls them on it.
And then Hein takes couple of shots at them from orbit with his space laser, killing the 8th spirit. But funnily enough it doesn't end the Phantom menace for good or save humanity. In fact it brings them together as a giant Resident Evil tentacle monster which smacks their buggy and sends it tumbling deep into the crater.
Hein keeps on shooting at it with the Zeus cannon, but he gets no level complete and no experience points. Eventually the computer system locks him out because he's overheated the laser, but that's not going to stop him!
You know, this reminds me of the ending to Final Fantasy VII, with the meteor crater and the Mako energy flowing under the crust. Shame that the true last boss is in orbit overhead right now and nobody's brought any swords or magic.
Aki's not doing so well at the moment due to Phantom pains and she passes out again. She finds herself inside the dream one last time, but this time she gets meets the Phantom in her body that's giving her these visions face to face... and it kills her.
But one of them turns blue, followed by the rest of the Phantom, and then it explodes into Phantom dust.
"With the hope of new life, has Gaia changed the Phantom within?" she wonders to herself. It certainly seems that way, as she wakes up to find that's she's cured and she has the completed spirit wave. So the 8th spirit... is her unborn child? The film's being very vague about it.
Our heroes only have a rifle to fight off the Phantoms swarming around the crater, but Aki convinces Gray to put it away and use its energy pack to project the completed wave and cancel out the alien spirits! And it actually works... until Hein fires his space laser again and ruins it. The lunatic tries to get the thing to fire again, repeatedly yelling at the computer as it warns him about the system overload.
I would've probably found him to be an entertaining adversary though, if I hadn't been continually distracted by how weird his coat looked. And that frown. Though I have to give him credit, as being so obsessed with revenge that he didn't even notice that his space gun was exploding around him earns him massive Ahab points. Especially as it was only exploding because he couldn't wait 15 seconds for it to cool down before taking another shot. He's way past 'Captain Picard on a bad day' on the Space Ahab leaderboard, probably right up next to Khan Noonien Singh. As high as you can get without literally quoting Melville.
Aki's still got the completed spirit wave though, she just needs a way to deliver it into the Phantom. So Gray gets Aki down onto a ledge and then lets his own spirit be taken into the monster, carrying along the spirit wave and turning everything blue. Which is good!
It's not exactly the most satisfying ending for an action film though. It's actually a bit depressing really, seeing as almost everyone we've met in the film has died along the way.
He silently winches Aki out of the crater while she hugs Gray's lifeless corpse, then the sun rises, an absurdly realistic bird flies off across the mountains, and it's over.
But we don't get to see the other cities, or people celebrating, or even Aki standing over Gray's grave giving a final narration. In fact if you miss the two or three references to other cities it feels like the world just ended, with Sid and Aki as the last humans alive. But Keith David's definitely still alive, so at least there's that.
Here have a link to listen to the second end credits theme, you've earned it: L'Arc~en~Ciel - Spirit Dreams Inside (You Tube Link). Now you can be as surprised as I am by how little it fits the tone of the movie.
The thing about 'Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within' is that its title starts with the words 'Final' and 'Fantasy', and that means it's always going to be judged as much for what it isn't as for what it is. So what I'm going to do here, is split the title up and look at each side of it individually.
If you look at the movie's posters or box art one thing you might notice is that the 'Final Fantasy' text is written just a little bit bigger than 'The Spirits Within' text. 23 times bigger in fact. This was definitely promoted as being a 'Final Fantasy' movie, by the actual company that produces the games, and the creator who invented the series! If you stick a popular brand name on your product you get the benefit of that brand's recognition and reputation, and Final Fantasy is still one of the strongest brands in video games. It was a no-brainer for Square to take advantage of what they had to give their first movie the best chance to succeed. The thing is, a brand is also a promise about the kind of content you're going to get, and if the product strays too far from expectations it comes across like it's taking advantage of the fans. And this strays so far from Final Fantasy they could've just as well called it 'Reservoir Dogs: The Spirits Within'.
When I think of Final Fantasy, I think of amazing Nobuo Uematsu prog rock battle themes, quests from the king, moogles, chocobos, suplexing a train, swords fights, magic, summons, epic battles, caves, dungeons, health potions, chatting to villagers, going into the woods to hit imps, spending nights in the inn, and a huge journey around the world. What did we get though? A couple of 'airships', a guy called
Final Fantasy games are about the heroes seeing new places, meeting people. exploring mazes, and getting things done. This is about the heroes going to wastelands, collecting something off the ground, and then getting killed off. As a Final Fantasy story it is a complete failure.
The Spirits Within.
But forget the 'Final Fantasy' title. If you take the movie on its own terms it isn't actually that terrible. It's just not all that good either. The Deep Eyes squad are as generic as they are dull, with the tough black guy, the tough woman, the tough leader and the comic relief pilot/tech guy. Worse, two of them fade utterly into the background to the point where I didn't even know their names until they died, and Steve Buscemi's character's wisecracks seemed as computer generated as the face they came out of. The film has a gaping chasm where its charm and humour should be. The cast should've been up to the task, but the writing just wasn't there for them.
Visually, it looks like a video game cutscene, but I'm not considering that to be a bad thing. I've lost count of the amount of times I've watched a CG in-game cinematic or game advert and thought 'yeah, I'd watch a movie of that'. It's actually bloody clever work, the art design is fantastic and it hasn't dated all that badly in 15 years. It's just a shame it never goes anywhere worth looking at (there's nowhere interesting left to go), and it's usually too dark to see much anyway.
As an 'Aliens' style action movie it's disappointing, but it's trying to tell a more thoughtful story than the typical space marine bug hunt, about how we should work with nature to solve problems rather than shoot them from space with a giant orbiting laser cannon. Trouble is the story is kind of crap too. They're out collecting 8 spirits to create a wave that neutralises ghosts. What does that even mean? Why these particular spirits? Why is the only one of each on Earth? I wish they'd just gone with magic crystals because then they could've said 'a wizard did it'. It's an unsatisfying vague premise that leads to an unsatisfying vague ending.
I think the main problem with the film is that its came out in an era where people just didn't know how to make a decent fantasy movie and apparently didn't much want to. If 'Fellowship of the Ring' had come out five years before it instead of five months after, I think this could've been an entirely different movie. Not that 'Advent Children' turned out that great either.
But hey, 'Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV's going to have Sean Bean in it as the king, so I still have hope!
Right, I'm done writing about Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. But next week you can look forward to reading my thoughts on some other science fiction movie or episode from Earth's history on Sci-Fi Adventures!
Oh right, I should mention that I've just started a new site called Ray Hardgrit's Sci-Fi Adventures. It's basically the same thing as Super Adventures, except with SF movies and series instead of video games. Though I have to admit, it's going to be mostly season one Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 at first, with a little bit of modern Doctor Who mixed in. I like variety, but I also like watching things in order and I had to invent three new weekdays to find the time as it is. But if you're interested you can read about Star Trek: The Motion Picture there right now! Woo!
Plus Super Adventures will be back next week with another game, as usual. So let's see how long I can keep this up for.
Please feel welcome to leave thoughts and feedback!