Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) / Animation-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, mild sensuality and some language
Running Time: 106 min.
Cast (voices): Min-Na, Alec Baldwin, James Woods, Donald Sutherland, Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, Keith David, Peri Gilpin, Jean Simmons, Matt McKenzie
Director: Hironobu Sakaguchi (with Moto Sakakibara)
Screenplay: Al Reinert, Jeff Vintar (with Jack Fletcher)
Review published May 23, 2005
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is a film before its time, costing an estimated $125-150 million to produce, but only earning about a third of its revenue back theatrically. That's not to say it is a bad movie by any means, it just never really had the mass fan base that the studio heads who green-lighted this project thought they would by the time of the film's release (reportedly it took four years to complete). The other reason why it failed to connect with audiences comes from the story itself, which is a somber mix of standard action and philosophical science fiction, and not really all that palatable for non-geek culture. This one's mostly for those who love intelligent anime style plotting, mixed with some of the most beautifully rendered computer animation ever seen on a big screen anywhere at the time of its release.
The setting in Earth in the year 2065, where almost the entire planet has been overrun by a phantom-esque race of aliens who are extracting the life essence from nearly all living things. The humans have launched a counter attack, although the factions are split as to how to proceed. One faction, led my the militaristic General Hein (voiced by James Woods, The General's Daughter), wants to shoot a large cannon that will wipe out the phantoms, but the other faction, led by Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland, Space Cowboys) and Dr. Aki Ross (Ming-Na, Street Fighter), believes that will also kill Gaia, the Earth's life force, where all living things end up after they expire. Now the race is on as to how to put an end to the alien scourge, whether through extermination or through more peaceful methods.
Final Fantasy derives its name from the series of popular role playing games, although not directly based on any of them. In fact, most of the games aren't even based on each other, which begs the question why they would bother trying to tie in the movie, which contains a stand-alone story, to a series of games that have such a limited appeal, albeit popular among gamers. It does, however, capture the spirit of the games, which also played out as long mini-movies, except with mostly linear gameplay in between the lengthy cut scenes.
Much ado was made regarding the use of photo realistic 3D animation, which is quite stunning, and even if the movie overall was a financial failure, it did succeed in at least one major breakthrough -- it showed that movies can have realistic characters without the need for actors. One can instantly see the possibilities, where a whole series of movies can thrive and continue, even when the actors are aging or no longer interested in continuing the project. Once rendered, the look of the people, sets, and space ships could be recycled ad infinitum, with only minor tweaking whenever technology allowed for more realistic looking graphics.
Although not technically an anime film, it is obvious that this Final Fantasy, like the video games themselves, are rooted mostly in Japanese styles of animation and designs. Even the themes of the film are distinctly eastern, although the action and characters themselves could just as easily stepped off the set of a Hollywood production. Still, the mood of the film isn't action-charged or rife with opportunities for ga-ga inducing explosions, very much akin to the poetry and beauty found in many Japanese productions. This also explains why the film struggles to find a proper audience, as it is a mix of several styles, but not strong in any one of them to be easily labeled or defined.
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within works on most levels, whether or not you view this just to see vivid animation, intelligent sci-fi, well-designed fantasy, or hard-boiled action. Perhaps the only thing missing from it, ironically, is a sense of humanity, as we do feel a certain distance to a world that looks far more beautiful and alien than that of reality, even though it is based on a representation of Earth of the future. There may be a day when computer graphics completely supersede the need to have celebrities in the middle of films, but given the costs of production today for animation, as well as the lack of the movie star draw to fill in the seats, Final Fantasy is a reminder that the day of the human actor will be with us for a long time to come.
©2005 Vince Leo