Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is not actually based on any of the
Final Fantasy videogames (the only real nod to the videogames I could
find was Dr. Sid, who is a reference to the various characters named Cid found
throughout the series). But the plot to Final Fantasy is videogame ready.
A ragtag group of scientists and soldiers try to collect the "eight spirits"
necessary to create a spirit pattern that will neutralize the deadly phantoms
who are overrunning the earth.
What's more notable, though, is Final Fantasy's similarities to anime
movies. It's no surprise, given the background of Square, the company that created
the videogames and the movie, but Final Fantasy, though eschewing some of anime's
more "vulgar" properties (gore, sex, and sex and gore at the same
time), is, top to bottom, Japanese animation. The strong central female character,
the tentacled critters, the mentions of Gaia, the eco-message, and the post-apocalyptic
setting, so very popular with a country that's actually experienced apocalypse
As such, the release of Final Fantasy is a historic movie if for no
other reason than that it marks the second time (after Princess Mononoke's
brief appearance) that this type of movie has been available at your suburban
cineplex. Ghost in the Shell, and others, have mostly been relegated
to the art house circuit. Final Fantasy is the first wide-release anime
in the U.S. Casual fans of animation and computer animation have no idea what
they're in for. And this could bode badly for Final Fantasy's box office.
What could bode badly for Final Fantasy's critical success, however,
are the elements that will be seen as more typical American Hollywood. The plot
sometimes takes a back seat to the action, the characters are interesting but
mostly not well-developed, there is a spattering of clichéd lines, and
some over-used "enlightened scientists versus the corporate military machine"
stuff. However, it should be pointed out that all these things are as often
to be found in Asian films as in American ones. Not every Japanimation film
is Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind. A lot of them are pure tripe.
Final Fantasy does, sadly, crib heavily from the Alien movies,
among others. If you're going to steal, I guess you should steal from the best
(as Event Horizon did), but the Colonial Marines feel of much of the
movie is only one of several parallels.
I haven't yet said anything about the CG animation, which is far from perfect,
but nonetheless stunning. The human characters sometimes look a bit like marionettes,
and lip movements are off enough that I wondered if the dialogue was originally
animated in Japanese. But these are minor complaints. Check out the skin detail,
and the hair. Some of the inanimate objects (a soldier's knife, General Hein's
leather coat) have flawless texture and substance.
Realism aside, the visuals are gorgeous. The advantage of animation over live-action
is that the imagination is not limited by the constraints of what is feasible.
With the exception of the Zeus Cannon, the bazillionth variation on the Death
Star, the technology is highly original and vividly rendered. The properties
of the translucent phantoms elevate them far above the standard Alien-clone
There are some limitations, of course. The phantoms come in three basic types,
and the lack of variety is completely inconsistent with the explanation given
for their existence, but entirely consistent with the fact that it's easier
and cheaper to model and animate a limited number of creatures, and then duplicate
them several times over. This also helps explain the small number and generic
nature of any human characters beyond the core group. There's an occurrence
of spectacular mass chaos that transpires entirely off-screen, probably due
to the fact that showing the occurrence would require that dozens or hundreds
of human "extras" be built and animated.
Less obvious than the visuals, but no less impressive, is the sound in Final
Fantasy. The voice actors, with the exception of Alec Baldwin (also doing
voice work in this summer's Cats & Dogs), are top-drawer: Ming-Na
(Mulan, Street Fighter, The Joy Luck Club), Donald Sutherland
(Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The
Puppetmasters), Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction, Mission Impossible),
Peri Gilpin (Frasier), and even Dwight Schultz (The A-Team, Star
Trek: TNG). Steve Buscemi (Reservoir Dogs, Desperado, and
a bunch of Cohen brother movies) was also in Final Fantasy. As much as
I love Buscemi, I found his presence in this movie to be a bit distracting.
His voice is almost too distinctive.
Voice-talent aside, the foley artists for Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
did a bang-up job. The sound effects really sold me on the environment of
Final Fantasy. It's hard not to be awed by the clang of metal as hundreds
of armored creatures straight out of Warhammer 40K barrel down on you.
And at small moments, such as when General Hein flips over a picture, the line
that your mind uses to differentiate virtual images from actual ones becomes
THIS PARAGRAPH IS INFESTED WITH SPOILERS. There were definitely some things
that annoyed me. The deaths of the three supporting characters in quick succession
was without meaning, purpose, logic, or drama. It seemed like it was just time
to get rid of them so they wouldn't complicate the final act of the movie. Also,
the giant protoplasmic spirit resembled the monster in Akira, but was
even more similar in form and function to the creature at the end of Princess
Mononoke (which plagiarized Akira's monster a bit). The ending was
also a very anime ending, which will probably bother a large portion of the
American audience, but didn't bother me. What bothered me a bit was its similarity
again to the ending of Princess Mononoke. Though the closing theme was
about twelve notches above the incongruous dreck that got pasted over the end
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is, alas, not the masterwork that
some of us were hoping for. But it is an event that you probably shouldn't miss
seeing on the big screen.