Movie Review – Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)
No matter what the final box office tally or the reviews of praise or scorn, ‘Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within’ will always be remembered as the first movie to feature computer graphics that attempt to render the real human form. This is not your cute ‘Toy Story’ with plastic action figures meant for kids less than five years of age. It is not computer animated ants ala, well, ‘Ants,’ or ‘A Bug’s Life.’ Final Fantasy goes where no film has gone before and painstakingly models a human being – their facial and body movement, nuances, and yes, emotion.
I confess I am a huge fan of the Final Fantasy line of video games. I’ve played them all, some multiple times. As the series has evolved through the years from its humble beginnings on the original Nintendo Entertainment System to the Super-Nintendo and now finally to Sony’s Playstation and Playstaion 2, there remains one constant – an enormously high level of quality both in production levels and story content. There might be small pockets where the writing appears stilted and great leaps of faith every now and then are required but the pure unbridled emotion that each game elicits from the player is unmatched in any video game series on the planet.
To that end I must admit a certain amount of ego with this review since unlike other movie critics I know Final Fantasy intimately so I am more than a bit baffled as I awoke this morning and scanned the various reviews. As I had expected the results were mixed generally either very high or low with not much in the midrange but what striked me as completely odd was what exactly the negative reviews were espousing.
‘Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within’ is a movie which will please every die-hard fan of the series. It includes nearly every major theme and moment from each game, threaded together with an overarching plot ripped from Final Fantasy VII. Make no mistake though, this cobbling of story elements works because it is a time worn message of environmentalism, especially influenced by recent Japanese history.
Being the only nation ever to have the bomb used on them, Japanese sci-fi has a common thread of both technology and the machine versus nature and tranquility. It is a thread seen not only in Japanese film but literature and in its native animated form, anime. Countless stories of past civilizations lost due to incompetent and maniacal forces only to be reborn like a butterfly many eons later. It is an ever-revolving circle of life and death and a constant struggle for our stalwart heroes to try and change the course of history.
Each Final Fantasy video game succeeds in creating a world so vibrant and imaginative that it literally drags the player in and soon they dream of living in such wondrous surroundings. Not to mention each game has truly standout moments, which are burned into one’s psyche forever. What video game fan can forget such moments as Celes, the female general turned rebel who is forced, of all things, to perform in a stage Opera belting out a tune that Beethoven himself would have been proud of. Or what about the grotesquely neon carnival in Final Fantasy 8 where the witch Edea and her bodyguard, Seifer ride a float through the streets like a scene ripped from a deranged circus. But personally the one and truly defining moment is the most touching in any video game ever created and fans know that I am of course referring to the end of disc 1 in Final Fantasy 7 where the most unlikely event occurs causing even the most jaded cynic to burst into tears.
This is the rich history in which the film draws upon akin to a screenwriter being influenced by the Bard himself. Call that blasphemous but in the world of video games such is the pedestal the Final Fantasy series holds.
As the familiar Columbia logo fades in and the movie begins we are met with an ominous, deep resonating bass of the film’s soundtrack and whatever notion you might have about this film is immediately chucked out the window. This is a movie more for adults than little children. Unlike the Final Fantasy games which begin in Idyllic settings the movie thrusts the audience right smack into the blasted, stark, charcoal infested landscape of the Earth in the future where humanity clings by the very nails for survival.
In this future alien beings called Phantoms have invaded the Earth, killing everything in their path, as humanity is forced to retreat behind force field barriers in small pockets around the planet. This is no ‘Toy Story.’ As the camera leads us through the desolate landscape of old New York it’s almost as if it’s the day after the aliens attacked in Independence Day. The city is in ruin – buildings crumbling into dust, cars strewn over the empty asphalt. Not a living creature in sight. This is a dystopian vision much grimmer than ‘Blade Runner’ – a vision of such bleakness even Kubrick might wince at.
It is in this wasteland of a once bustling city that the audience is introduced to the film’s main character and heroine, Dr. Aki Ross who is here in an attempt to find the “sixth spirit” which she needs for her research.
This is a good point to bring back those reviews I scanned over today for in each of those negative reviews the critic based all his/her reactions on the fact that Aki and the other human characters weren’t exactly human – their movements were close to real as are their facial expressions but everyone leapt upon this as the main reason why they couldn’t relate to the movie and thus lowered their opinion.
For the record they are right. Aki Ross is one stunning woman with a face you’d expect to see gracing the cover of Vogue and a body ripped from the Playboy centerfold of the month. The male characters are also aptly endowed with physiques Arnold Schwarzennger or Stallone can’t match. The facial expressions are done well but won’t ever be mistaken for real unless one of these characters were featured lost in a crowd in the background. All of this is true to which I reply, “So what?”
For the first attempt of this magnitude the result is stunning to say the least. Within the world which surrounds them these characters fit in so well it won’t take long for anyone to accept that these movements aren’t exact. The “acting” itself might not win any Academy Awards but that is not the point at all for if the “acting” was truly that good, every actor and actress in Hollywood would be out hocking pens on the side of the street by tomorrow. What is surprising is that these computer animated actors and actresses are good enough to match standard Hollywood actors. There are moments where a character might emote too much or go through the dreaded “bug-eye” syndrome but for the most part the “acting” is convincing enough to propel the story forward and more importantly, create a huge bond of sympathy with the audience.
To realize that these fake computer mannequins can elicit true human emotion from the audience is a story in itself and makes you wonder about the central question postulated in Spielberg’s A.I. – can a robot love and vice versa. It’s the eternal question of life and the meaning we are all here and even though the Final Fantasy movie doesn’t ask the question it is ironic that the answer Spielberg and Kubrick sought is buried in our reactions to Aki and her companions.
Aki is the portal in which the audience is led into Final Fantasy’s world vision. The story unfolds as she and her mentor, Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) attempt to validate an environmentalist theory as to how to defeat the Phantoms. Working on the opposite side is General Hein played gloweringly by James Woods. If there is one low point for the movie it is that Hein as a villain is woefully hammy. There’s nary a scene that goes by where he’s not evilly grinning, glowering with furrowed brows or plainly saying his nefarious plans. Here is a man no one in the universe would ever mistake for a nice guy.
‘Final Fantasy: The Spirit’s Within’ is a deliberately paced movie. There are your standard action scenes where the Deep Eyes Squad (Alec Baldwin, Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, Peri Gilpin) fire pulse cannons ALA James Cameron’s ‘Aliens’ and even a dropship that harkens back to Cameron’s action epic, but there are long intervals between these scenes of exposition, dream montages and character building. This leads me to unfortunately conclude that the film might be altogether too weighty a subject matter for the general audience consumption especially in the summer movie season. I sincerely hope my fears don’t come to pass as what we have here is a truly landmark film.
Weighing in at over 105 minutes that makes the movie one of the longest computer animated films – maybe even the longest but I am not sure of that. The narrative unfolds slowly, methodically with the major twist coming well into the final act.
Mood is a strange thing to capture in a movie and to describe the atmosphere as depressing as a general comment is actually being rather light since there are times of such destruction and horror that it is no surprise the film is rated AA (Adult Accompaniment) here in Canada. The Phantoms and their many incarnations are exceedingly scary monsters that kill by literally sucking your soul out from you to screams of agony. This is the stuff of nightmares not fanciful daydreaming and is one Final Fantasy world you’d probably never want to live in.
As the movie hurtles towards its climax the intelligence quotient rises with it as the film begins to lose a bit of steam in its murky sensibilities. Nothing a die-hard fan won’t understand but Final Fantasy leans heavily on Eastern culture and mores. The concept of a living planet might be universal but it is much more highly visible in Japanese artistic work – the idea that our planet, indeed all planets are living and that we who live on these planets are merely a part of a whole ecosystem that binds the universe together. Yes, that sounds like Lucas’ force in ‘Star Wars’ but that comes as no surprise since Lucas was in turn influenced by Akira Kurosawa.
Although there is much death and destruction in the film this is a movie that’s oozing the Eastern touch. Anyone who knows Final Fantasy VII will instantly know where the story is going right down to the ending. Amidst the ash strewn blasted landscape where nothing can live, something always does – as life begets death, death begets life.
Hollywood might have some hand in the action montages but the central theme and mythos is decidedly Pacific Rim and pure Final Fantasy and like all the Final Fantasy games the movie resonates with the audience because it presents them with challenging and thought-provoking ideas as well as likable, believable and yes, humanistic characters.
**** out of ****
2001, Japan/USA, 106 Minutes, PG-13, Columbia Pictures/Square
Director: Hironobu Sakaguchi
Writers: Hironobu Sakaguchi (story), Al Reinert (written by) & Jeff Vintar (written by)
Producer: Jun Aida, Chris Lee, Akio Sakai
Executive Producer: Hironobu Sakaguchi
Original Music: Elliot Goldenthal
Cinematography: Motonori Sakakibara
Film Editing: Christopher S. Capp
Casting: Jack Fletcher
Production Design: Mauro Borrelli
Dr. Aki Ross (voice): Ming-Na
Capt. Gray Edwards (voice): Alec Baldwin
Sgt. Ryan Whitaker (voice): Ving Rhames
Officer Neil Fleming (voice): Steve Buscemi
Officer Jane Proudfoot (voice): Peri Gilpin
Dr. Cid (voice): Donald Sutherland
General Hein (voice): James Woods
Council Member #1 (voice): Keith David
Council Member #2 (voice): Jean Simmons
Major Elliot (voice): Matt McKenzie
© 2001 The Galactic Pillow