MetalFRO's Blog

Posted on Feb 15th 2022 at 01:00:00 PM by (MetalFRO)
Posted under Final Fantasy, The Spirits Within, Squaresoft, movie review

Summer 2001 was an interesting time for me. I had moved out of my home state to the East Coast and was trying something new in the work arena. Previous jobs had come and gone, and nothing really stuck, so rather than continue to flounder, I thought I would change my course. I quickly found out that my newly chosen path was a huge mistake, and within just a few short months, I would move back to my home state and get back on the career path I started on, albeit in a different direction. But for a few months in the middle of 2001, I lived about 45 minutes from the ocean, and had a fairly eye-opening experience learning about the differences between small town midwestern life and what life was like in the south.

During my stint on the coast, I spent a fair amount of time on my off days looking for entertainment. Whether it was browsing music shops, used video game stores, pawn shops, etc., I found ways to occupy my time when I wasn't working. And of course, there were also movie theaters. One of the more highly anticipated releases the summer of 2001 was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, which was to be the debut film from Square Pictures. Having played and enjoyed Final Fantasy VII just a year or so prior, I was looking forward to the movie. I thought the idea of using full computer animation for everything was novel at the time and assumed the storytellers at Square had a good chance of coming up with a good story.

The Spirits Within was supposed to be a way for Square to expand and get a foothold in other types of media outside of video games. As history has recorded, however, that was not to be. The film performed poorly, it lost a lot of money for Square, and nearly destroyed the company, along with the plan that was then in the works for Square to merge with fellow Japanese game publishers Enix. According to figures I read, the movie's budget was nearly $140 million and only made back just over $30 million domestically. The film did well enough internationally to net around $85 million, but with a budget approaching twice that, it was a commercial failure in every sense. Over time, DVD sales and rentals were enough for the movie to eventually break even, and even turn a small profit, but it wasn't the bonanza Square were probably hoping for.

The big question is this: why did the film bomb so hard? I think there are a number of factors. First, despite the Final Fantasy name having become more widely known in the wake of the popularity of Final Fantasy VII, and by extension, Final Fantasy VIII, video games were still in that transitional stage between being a "nerdy" or "kids" pastime, and being the multi-billion dollar phenomenon that they are today. So, while the FF series had some cache at the time, it still wasn't culturally relevant enough to carry a film. Second, despite having entered a new millennium and the rise of high-end graphics cards or detailed FMV sequences in 6th generation consoles, it may have been too early for that level of realism in computer animated films, given the advances in technology in the years since. Third, the association with the Final Fantasy name in itself is confusing, since there's little to tie it to the franchise, even with each new mainline FF entry being its own self-contained story.

I saw the movie in the theaters on opening weekend, and I rather enjoyed it. It's not perfect, and it definitely could have used some work, but it was groundbreaking at the time. I think it may be a case of Square's reach exceeding their grasp, but not in a helpful way. This was Square's chance to diversify and expand their reach. It makes sense that they would try to go beyond gaming, particularly because they had already achieved some success with music sales of their game soundtracks, and the late 90's were an experimental period for Squaresoft in general, seeing them branching out into non-RPG genres of games. Some of those experiments were successful (Einhander and Bushido Blade, for example), and while some were not (Sokaigi or Racing Lagoon), the spirit of trying new things and branching out was there, and should have been a sign of good things to come. Sadly, this particular failed experiment has pretty much guaranteed that Square Enix will be hard-pressed to venture outside the RPG space again, even now, more than 20 years on from this.

Getting to the movie itself, here's the basic setup: Dr. Aki Ross is studying "Phantoms", a series of alien beings that infect any human life they come into contact with, and humanity has been reduced to living in large, fortified bio-dome cities with shielding that helps keep the Phantoms out. Aki hopes to find a scientific solution to dealing with the alien threat, while the military forces she works alongside are simply bent on destroying the Phantoms at any cost. Dr. Ross seeks out samples of life forms which provide components that, once fully integrated, will allow the alien entities to be phased completely out of existence on Earth, allowing the remaining human population to survive. Meanwhile, General Hein hopes to use a giant laser cannon from orbit to blast the site of the meteor crash that brought the alien life to Earth in the first place, in hopes that it will finally rid humanity of the threat.

I think the film has a lot going for it. To start with, it centers around a strong cast. You have a couple larger names, such as James Woods (as General Hein) and Donald Sutherland (as Dr. Sid), as well as talent like Ming-Na Wen (Dr. Aki Ross), Steve Buscemi (Neil), Ving Rhames (Ryan), Alec Baldwin (Captain Gray), and Keith David (council member), so already it starts off on good footing from that standpoint. The story itself, while not inherently related to the Final Fantasy games in the strictest sense, was an interesting science fiction setup that I believe works overall. Visually, despite the technology being a bit underdeveloped for the level of realism they were going for, it's still a good looking movie, and there are some impressive effects, character designs, and scenes.

Where did it go wrong? That's a tougher question to answer. Some people think the script is a big issue. I happen to think it's solid enough, and certainly with early 2000's science fiction, it fares better than a lot of stuff that was coming out in the wake of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, Starship Troopers, and so forth. The "Gaia theory" concept in the story is a bit weak and may appear to be in conflict with the science that Dr. Ross is trying to rely upon, but I don't necessarily think that's the case. The 3D models and scenery, while impressive for the time, don't look as good now, and even at the time, the characters don't reach the level of realism that one assumes Square was aiming for. While the voice acting is generally strong, some bits get a little corny at times, such as when James Woods tries to go full on crazy with General Hein, and it just doesn't work.

Despite its flaws, I still think it's worth watching, especially given the technology available at the time to make it happen. As the first "serious" film that's completely computer generated, I think it blazed a trail and tried something new. It didn't necessarily have to be the best movie ever, and I believe it was strong enough to have done better than it did. It's unfortunate that Square nearly went bankrupt over it, because I honestly think they could have continued to improve upon the idea of making full CGI animated films. Of course, they would follow this up with the Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children film not long after, and while that set expectations much lower, it really doesn't have any substance by comparison. If you haven't seen it yet, I believe Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is worth checking out. If you have, and you didn't care for it at the time, I think it's worth revisiting.

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For what it's worth, I really enjoyed the movie too.

I think the biggest problem we saw is kind of the opposite of what you named as issue 1 and sort of described by issue 3: The film carries an FF title and doesn't really have much/enough to do with Final Fantasy. Almost everyone I know was hoping for more references to FF (which they got with Advent Children) and even though this could've been very game-like, there was no game to tie the movie to. So, they shouldn't have used a game title in the first place.

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