Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, May 8, 2019

VIDEO GAME MOVIE MONTH: Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)

2001 was the year video game movies made a real bid for mainstream acceptance. That summer brought both “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” and “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.” “Final Fantasy VII” was a big deal among my lunch table at the time. I played it at a friend's house and quickly decided it wasn't my type of thing. However, the idea of a “Final Fantasy” film, especially one that would stand apart from the games, intrigued me. Of course, that same divergence would make the movie a target of scorn for fans of the video game. (Those losers eventually got their “Final Fantasy VII” movie. I never saw it but it looked shitty.) After seeing the film in theaters and loving it, I soon found myself part of a small crowd of people defending “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” against the naysayers.

Sometime before 2061, our world is struck by a meteorite. A race of ghost-like aliens, quickly dubbed Phantoms, emerge from the crater and reduce the Earth to a post-apocalyptic war zone. If humans touch the Phantoms, their lifeforce is ripped right from their bodies. The remaining human populations live in heavily shielded cities. Scientist Aki Ross and her mentor, Dr. Sid, have discovered each life form on Earth has a “Gaia energy” inside it. The Earth itself might very well have one . Aki – who is partially infected by Phantom energy and is haunted by strange dreams – and Sid believe that, if they gather eight special spirits, they can negate the Phantoms' effects. Aki and Sid are soon joined by an elite group of soldiers, led by Gray – Aki's ex-boyfriend – in their quest to retrieve the spirits. They face opposition from General Hein, who supports firing a giant cannon at the planet instead, and will go to any extreme to get his way.

At the time, most of the hype surrounding “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” was focused on the photo-realistic CGI used to animate it. While many praised the animation, some viewers found it unnerving, saying the characters fell right into the uncanny valley. Watching in 2019, I was surprised at how well the animation stood up. Yes, sometimes the characters' facial expressions seem a little unnatural. However, especially when compared to Robert Zemecksis' later motion capture films, “The Spirits Within” looks pretty good. Despite photo-realism being the goal, there's still something slightly animesque about the design, keeping them from being creepy looking. The amount of detail that went into every aspect of the film makes it an amazing technical achievement, if nothing else.

Mostly, that groundbreaking CGI animation is used to create some truly spellbinding images of sci-fi spectacle. Aki's dreams show an alien world torn apart by war, moments that feel genuinely unearthly. The shots of the transparent Phantoms, some of which are truly bizarre looking, phasing through buildings and people definitely make an impression. In the final act, “Final Fantasy” shines even more. The images of a sickened Gaia spirit, crawling up out of the Earth and looking like a massive tumor, are unforgettably weird. The world of “The Spirits Within” is one of immense beauty, where gorgeously snowy mountainsides can co-exist with cyberpunk cityscapes and alien worlds.

Though it shares its name with Square's famous long-running series of RPGs, “The Spirits Within” is not adapted from any of the video games. While they all mix sci-fi and fantasy, the cinematic “Final Fantasy” favors science-fiction over fantasy. Aside from a character named Sid and a story involving a band of heroes gathering items to save the world, “The Spirits Within” doesn't resemble its source material much. The film's weakest moments tend to be the ones that resemble a video game the most. The first half-hour is bogged down by a lot of exposition, characters explaining things for the benefit of the audience that is already known in the story. Sometimes, all the talk about Gaia spirits and the film's mythology can get a bit convoluted. In these moments, “The Spirits Within” embodies the worst aspects of anime and video games.

Yet “The Spirits Within” is also a deeply emotional experience that grapples with heady themes. Early on, Aki explains that one of the gathered spirits was taken from a dying little girl. She's brought to tears by recounting how the girl reacted when told about Gaia spirits. The film is openly grappling with the idea of how humans deal with death, whether they retreat into cynical nihilism or attempt to attain a more spiritual conclusion. Director Hironobu Sakaguchi was largely inspired by his mother's death. That sincerity is evident in the way the film explores its big, weighty themes. Moreover, there are traces of environmentalism here, with the Earth being threatened by mankind and especially authoritarian forces like the military, playing a big role in the story.

Those humanistic themes are further explored in the deeply fair treatment of its cast. The characters in “Final Fantasy” are truly brought to life, by their voice actors, the script, and the animators. All the characters have an emotional arc. Even the villain, who grapples with the consequences of his actions. All the casting is pitch perfect. Ming-Na Wen gives a deeply thoughtful performance as Aki, a hugely empathetic person. Alec Baldwin voices Gray, who fills the traditional hero role without being bland. Steve Buschemi is perfectly cast as Neil, the snarky comic relief. So are Donald Sutherland, as the wise mentor Dr. Sid, and James Woods, right in his territory as the ranting asshole General Hehn. (Honestly, it's really easy to imagine 2019 James Woods making these same rants about the Earth.) It's clear a lot of thought was put into the writing, casting, and performing of all these characters.

“Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” was never planned as part of a franchise. Perhaps the four years the filmmakers spend on it was enough for them. However, there was some hope that protagonist Aki Ross would become a computer generated actress that would star in other stories. (Part of the hype surrounding Aki had her being a cover girl on Maxim magazine.) None of this would come to pass. “The Spirits Within” would only make 85 million at the box ofiice, well below its 137 million dollar budget. The film bombed so hard that its production company, Squares Pictures, shut down right after it came out. Despite these failures, “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” still strikes me as a thematically ambitious and visually beautiful movie. It's not perfect but it is really, really interesting and that's sometimes just as good. [8/10]

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