Watching Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within for the first time was an interesting experience. I have no previous knowledge of the video games that inspired the movie, and my memories of its theatrical release are vague. This is truly one of the few films for which I had zero expectations going in. My mind was a blank slate, ready to take in the story and computer graphics.
As far as story goes, this one is pretty sparse. The plot is fairly typical of sci-fi and definitely feels like something out of a video game. It’s disappointing really, because I feel like this movie could have been a box office success if the story had more emotional impact. Despite a so-so plot, the voice cast is excellent. Ming-Na Wen stars as Doctor Aki Ross, a scientist trying to rid the Earth of an alien infestation. Wen’s voice work is perfect, and combined with the realistic design of the character creates one of the better representations of women in science fiction. Alec Baldwin plays military squad leader Gray Edwards, who is also Aki’s former boyfriend. Baldwin is good, but I couldn’t get over the fact that his character looks a lot like Ben Affleck. It was distracting, but at the same time I doubt Affleck could have delivered the performance that Baldwin does. The supporting cast (including Donald Sutherland, Steve Buscemi, James Woods, and Peri Gilpin) are all also great, which is really this movie’s greatest asset.
The animation in The Spirits Within actually holds up quite well despite its age. This was the first photorealistic animated feature film, and while representations of humans have improved since 2001, it’s clear that this movie was miles ahead of what any other studio was creating at the time. Still, the photorealism approach has its drawbacks. The characters feel real, but not real enough to be completely convincing. Facial expression is especially limited and often fails to match the intensity of the voice acting. However, other effects– such as hair and fabric movement– are quite good given that they are nearly 15 years old and much better examples have graced theaters in the intervening years. Often it’s tough for me to watch early CGI because I’m always comparing it to “this year’s model,” but I didn’t find myself doing that too much here. Much of it really does hold up.
Again, the real failure of Final Fantasy is the story. It’s just not compelling, and the backstory isn’t explained adequately to get me to care about it or the characters. It really feels like the thin video game plots that are standard of the industry, when it really needs something bigger and grander to sell the idea of “video game turned movie.”
This is an interesting film to review. I remember when this film was released, so much was made of the computer effects used to create the movie. They had technology that was able to believably portray humans. This was somewhere other animation companies had always struggled with. Companies like Pixar had, until recently, steered away from human characters as the technology just wasn’t here to make them look real enough. Rewatching Final Fantasy over ten years later, the technology stills hold up rather well. The difference between Final Fantasy and something like Tintin is not that great, considering Tintin is nearly a decade older. Unfortunately I believe too much time was spent on the effects, and not enough devoted to character and story development. At the time of the film’s release much was made of their ability to make protagonist, Dr Aki Ross’s (voiced by Ming Na) hair lifelike, and it does still look very good, even by today’s standards, but even so, it still feels like I am watching a video game scene, rather than a feature film.
Set in the future, Final Fantasy follows Dr. Ross and her attempts to find ways to stop an alien species that devastated the Earth years ago. She joins up with a crew of soldiers, led by a former lover (Alec Baldwin), to make a last stand on Earth and find a way to stop the aliens. They must do this before a crazy general (James Woods) can get approval to use a super weapon on the aliens that, while it will likely destroy the aliens, will take Earth with it.
When this film first came out, some were suggesting that a human actor might one day be replaced by a computer generated person. On this evidence, I am going to have to disagree with that assessment. There are so many emotions that we use facial movements and body language to convey. Right now, the technology just isn’t there to adequately replicate these emotions using an animated person. As much as we’d like to put Tom Cruise out of the job, I think we will be needing him and his brethren for some time yet. The characters just aren’t memorable enough to care about them. I only watched this film a few days ago and can barely remember anyone’s name other than Aki Ross.
Final Fantasy is a technical marvel, but it is not enough to save it from feeling like a B grade video game film. The story and characters just aren’t impressive enough to care about, which is a shame.