Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within: Second Thoughts
By Zach Patterson Wednesday, 13 Jan 2010

In 2001, Square released a major motion picture, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. The results were nothing short of disastrous for the company. The movie cost north of 130 million to make and barely made 30 million in the United States. It essentially killed Square’s movie division, Square Pictures, who only went on to create one other short, The Final Flight of the Osiris for the Animatrix. Aside from financially, the movie was a bit of a misfit in terms of “what” it actually was. It was labeled Final Fantasy, but aside from Dr. Sid (a name-play on the recurring character Cid) and some vague imagery reminiscent of Final Fantasy VII, there’s nearly nothing here for any fans of the series. No chocobos, no magic users, no spiky haired effeminate protagonists. On the other hand, for people unfamiliar with the games, all they know is that this is named after a video game they likely know little about and it may not be for them. While the movie may have been named completely wrong and marketed poorly, it’s a good movie that deserves a little second look back at it.

At its heart, The Spirits Within is three things. It’s a scifi action flick, it’s an anime, and it’s a zombie/alien movie. It mixes American-style, fast-paced action scenes with well-known American actors (well, their voices anyway), with asian themes of rebirth and soul-of-the-Earth stuff, and then mixes in these freaky ghost aliens that steal your soul if you touch them. If you’ve seen the movie, you generally know this so far. I just find it interesting that this was the movie they came up with for all this money, and whether they really expected it to be successful at all. Its appeal is so limited and not really easily marketable, and even watching the movie, it’s clear that it is really trying to straddle both eastern and western themes and tastes in order to please everyone, but in reality not really doing either extremely well. And at this point, I’ve ignored the fact that this is a completely CGI movie. CGI has traditionally been used as an effect in live action or for kids’ movies. Expecting people to really take it seriously as a movie for an older audience was a gamble that was likely to fail. This is all the more obvious in retrospect, as there really hasn’t been a movie that has attempted all CG and not been for kids since (though there are some you could argue, such as the recently released “9”).

That being said, the movie kinda makes its own path, and works for what it is. Although computer graphics have advanced in leaps and bounds in the 8+ years since it was released, the movie still looks pretty great. Some of the wow factor is gone, and occasionally the animation looks stiff or creepy, and some of the textures are a bit too shiny in spots, but for the most part, this is still a technical marvel. At the very least, you can watch it and just enjoy it as a regular action movie, and the effects integration is perfect, as opposed to a live action movie with CG where there usually seems to be a bit of a disconnect. I personally really loved the futuristic technology in this movie. It’s not in your face and a centerpiece of the movie like, say, Minority Report, but there is a lot of cool stuff in this. The great trooper suits that Gray’s team wears that still are memorable even after what seems like dozens of similar ideas in recent games like Killzone or Haze (or insert generic futuristic FPS here), the holographic hand keyboards that Aki utilizes, the excellent ship designs, and realistic but impressive holo projectors that are used for various effects throughout the movie.

Another aspect of this movie that I realized as watching it again was how much in common it had with zombie movies, more specifically Day of the Dead. The movie begins searching through the deserted streets of NYC, paralleling the opening of DotD where they are searching through the deserted streets of Florida, only to be attacked by the main enemies (Phantoms in TSW, zombies in DotD) before escaping via aircraft. Both movies also have the setting of humanity being pushed into seclusion in secure bunkers, having essentially been defeated by an unstoppable threat. Both movies also feature a strong female lead (who both have lucid dreams), as well as a strong military presence throughout the movie. Then there’s the obvious General Hein/Captain Rhodes comparison, where you have a dangerously aggressive and unstable man in a position of power threatening to shut down the science division that may pose the only hope to save the world. You can take it further by comparing Dr. Sid to Dr. “Frankenstein” Logan, where they see a method to their madness but many other are skeptical whether their research is truly making any progress. Both movies also end with their bunkers being overrun due to sabotage. Additionally, you can even make a comparison that the phantoms and zombies are similar creatures, in that they are ghosts of the past that now exist to roam the world mindlessly, and any contact with them is likely fatal.

Outside of all that, the movie also vaguely recalls Starship Troopers at points, as well as Aliens, Star Wars, and Terminator (the dream sequences, specifically, recall the T2 dream Sarah has). Additionally, there’s some imagery here that resembles Midgar and the Lifestream from Final Fantasy VII (maybe even a little Parasite Eve in the beginning in NYC), which I’m sure was intentional. But for carrying a lot of inspiration and lot of muddled genres mixed together, it still works as an enjoyable action-survival movie, akin to an Alien movie or perhaps something a little further down the chain like Deep Blue Sea. They line up a cast of likable characters, introduce the monster, put them in a situation where they must escape from it in an enclosed area, and watch them die one by one. It’s a bit formulaic, but I really enjoy the formula, so no complaints from me. The movie attempts to get a little metaphysical with the idea that the Earth has a spirit (Gaia) and that the heroes need to protect it from the idiots in the military who think it’s a bunch of shit. It’s a little goofy when they find a stream in the center of the Earth that’s supposed to represent this, but overall the story is told pretty well in between the action sequences. I really liked the use of the birds flying across the land “waiting for life to return” as a recurring theme in the movie that finishes off the movie.

This was a movie that had very little chance of succeeding and was mismarketed as a video game movie. That being said, it’s a great movie to go back to and appreciate for what it is. It’s got a great cast of actors on voice work, some impressive CG (even more impressive considering how dated it now is), and a unique blend of genres to create a compelling story. Hopefully, some time in the future, we’ll see more studios take risks and try to create more adult-oriented CG movies in this vein.

One Response to “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within: Second Thoughts”

  1. Brian Hohman Says:

    I like you have a loving relationship with survial/horror/action genre anything(games, movies, islands etc.), that said I watched this when it came out, again when it came out on DVD, maybe one or twice after that then forgot about for awhile. I having just found the DVD again watched it recently and I completely agree with your re-assessment of the movie. I really did find it enjoyable, the technology facinating(how the troopers land in the quickly evaporating gel is the shit!), CGI work brilliant especially for its time, and the story easy to follow and get into. I love sharing the movie with people who never had the pleasure of seeing it and most of the time they enjoy it as well. Also, Alec Baldwin! 😉

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