Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.
I – hm.
So, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was coming out roughly when Final Fantasy X came out, which was the first Final Fantasy game that I was really aware of, although I wouldn't play it until 2006. A lot of my early exposure to Final Fantasy, through screenshots online and people talking about it, was through Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. I didn't watch the film, but I was familiar with its plot, and I'd seen screencaps and, knowing very little about the franchise at the time, didn't see much awry with it.
I'm older and grumpier now, and I went into watching this film for the first time expecting something truly awful. This is the film that nearly killed the merger of Squaresoft and Enix, after all. This is one of the biggest box office flops in history – in fact that's how I selected it for this week's crop of reviews, as browsing the list of box office flops on Wikipedia is what I do whenever I'm low on subject matter to talk about. This is a film that fans of the franchise, who were startlingly permissive of games like Final Fantasy XIII, carbuncle on the face of the games industry that it is, try not to mention too loudly.
|The intrepid heroes.|
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is the story of Doctor Aki Ross, voiced by Ming-Na Wen, a scientist in a post-apocalyptic Earth that has been devastated by 'phantoms', mostly invisible monsters that remove and devour the souls of human beings. After having spent months on a space station, Aki, who has been infected with Phantom cells, is drawn back to Earth with a mission: She and her mentor have discovered that by gathering eight 'spirits', they can defeat the Phantoms, and they must do so before the moustache-twirling General Hein fires his giant laser, potentially killing the planet's consciousness, Gaia.
If that sounds like a convoluted plot, it's really not, in the main because there aren't many subplots. There's the search for the spirits, although Aki already has five by the time the story starts; there's Aki's romance with former fling Gray; there's Aki's strange dreams and how they relate to the origins of the Phantoms; and there's General Hein, wanting to fire a massive cannon. For a hundred minute film, that's not a gigantically complicated set of plots – it's actually all fairly straight forward, making for some very easy watching that you can mostly switch your brain off for.
The film, in general, is – competent. It is not the vile, terrible thing fans of the franchise say it is, and it's definitely better than Square's other foray into film-making, Advent Children, which was an incoherent mess of fanservice and failure and crushed dreams. It's very pretty and very well-animated, the plot more or less makes sense, the voice acting is usually fine, even though Ming-Na Wen is often terrible. That last confuses me, because Ming-Na Wen is a superb actress and voice actress in literally everything else I've seen or heard her in, and in this she's – sometimes quite jarringly bad. Never as bad as Steve Buscemi in the role of one of Gray's soldier buddies, who made me want to stab myself in the ears every time he spoke, but still pretty bad.
(It also doesn't help that the villain, General Hein, is ridiculously moustache twirling and basically spends his time wandering about in a black leather coat, scoffing at things and gnawing on the scenery. The film makes a valiant attempt towards the end at trying to make him seem three dimensional. It fails.)
|"I would have gotten away with it, if it weren't for you meddling kids."|
So why do fans seem to hate it so much?
Well, probably because it doesn't feel like a Final Fantasy product.
That's an odd thing for me to have to say. It's both written and directed by Hironobu Sakaguchi, the sometimes director and sometimes producer of the first nine Final Fantasy games, as well as functionally-just-Final-Fantasy-games Blue Dragon, Lost Odyssey, and The Last Story. It should be the most Final Fantasy thing ever, especially since a lot of care was taken to keep Sakaguchi's work unadulterated in the translation process.
It's – really not, though. Okay, if there's anything which is the solid hallmark of Final Fantasy, at least from the third game onwards or so, it's the idea of vast, unearthly worlds where science fiction technology and high fantasy magic meet and fuse together while still remaining distinct. That's the aesthetic of Final Fantasy, it is the key thing that people recognise about it. From a storytelling standpoint, Final Fantasy's main theme is undoubtedly dreams and reality, the disparity between the world as it appears to be and the world as actually is – VII and VIII both give you amnesiac protagonists, and they may well not be the only ones, X has you play as a literal dream-person whose entire world is a fabrication, XII has a massive chunk of its plot be about the revelation of the secret underworkings of its world, and XIII has the characters literally start off in a sealed, isolated environment from which they must break free.
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within doesn't really have either of those.
As far as aesthetics go, it's pure sci-fi. As far as setting goes, it's very nearly sci-fi, actually – this film apparently inspired the aesthetic of Mass Effect, and it shows. They're nearly identical to look at. Moreover, it's set on Earth. In Japan, there are currently fans rioting over the prospect of a game world that somewhat resembles modern Japan – I don't know why, Final Fantasy XV will never leave development hell – so a world that is literally Earth is … Well, you can see why people might take umbrage. Final Fantasy thrives off magical other worlds that merge science fiction and high fantasy, and this isn't that, this is just twenty-minutes-into-the-future science fiction with the occasional hint of fantasy.
As far as storyline, it's also pretty much just sci-fi. Soft sci-fi, to be sure, with talk of a planetary consciousness dubbed Gaia, and with the antagonistic creatures being literal ghosts from another planet, but still sci-fi, with all the trappings of it, and notably lacking that Final Fantasy theme of a disparity between the world as seen and the world as it actually is. In The Spirits Within, the world as seen is exactly what it is. There are secrets, sure. There are things to be discovered. What there isn't is the underlying idea that the world is false, a delusion or dream, a deception.
Even little things like the franchise's distinctive logo don't show up. It all comes together to create the sensation of a perfectly adequate film that is in no way related to the franchise whose name is attached to it.
|Yes, Doctor Sid (not Cid). Look slightly ashamed.|
I'm not sure why, either, because if you wanted to make a Final Fantasy film or, better yet, television series (always my preference), then there's no shortage of material to adapt in the form of the games. Not terribly made fanservice sequels like Advent Children, but actual adaptations: VI, VIII, and IX would all have made excellent film series or television shows, and for games that came out at the same time or after this film, so would X and XII.
So, yeah. It's a little difficult to judge this film objectively, if only because it's not really what it says on the proverbial tin, and what the tin says automatically brings up a whole load of expectations going in. One thing is definitely worth noting, it's a marvel of CGI for the time. Distinct characters whose movement looks natural, on beautiful, sweeping landscapes, with good use of colour. I bring that up because, for example, James Cameron's Avatar exists, and despite having been made at least ten years later, looks infinitely worse.