Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)

D: Hironobu Sakaguchi, Motonori Sakakibara
S: Voices of: Ming-Na, Alec Baldwin, Donald Sutherland

Animated sci-fi adventure from the popular computer game series by Squaresoft. Having been invaded by ghost-like aliens riding a meteor, Earth has been largely left abandoned. Only a few especially-shielded cities hold out against the creatures, physical contact with which seems to drain the life energy out of human beings. A determined female scientist (voiced by Ming-Na) teams up with a gang of soldiers (lead by one voiced by Alec Baldwin) and mentored by an aged scientist (voiced by Donald Sutherland) to find the key to defeating them. It seems that unique energy signatures within living things hold parts of a formula which when completed with cancel the alien life and re-energise our own. Can the team do this in time before a megalomaniacal general (voiced by James Woods) unleashes a weapon so deadly it may destroy the life force of the planet itself?

The film is not great, but it is not an unmitigated disaster. With the benefit of sincere performances and some nice design elements, it certainly has the edge over the last 'serious' animated sci-fi outing Titan AE. It will best appeal to purists or students of animation though, and is unlikely to excite the general public to the extent that it will be the kind of breakthrough its makers seem to have hoped it would be. The celebrity voices help, but they will not be enough to draw the adult crowds and the small fry just won't care.

One of the outstanding features of the more recent games in the Final Fantasy series has been the stunning Full Motion Video (FMV) sequences which fill in developments in plot in between bouts of player-controlled gameplay. It was easy to see that sooner or later someone would suggest taking things to the next level and leaving out the interactive elements altogether. But there is a difference between an FMV sequence which works as a kind of chapter ending/reward which gives you a break from the button-pushing and an actual cinematic narrative. It may look good, but is it a joy or a chore to sit through?

Visually, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is not bad. There are some striking landscape images and there is a certain hypnotic majesty to the way in which the alien phantoms are portrayed. There are some logistically complex action sequences and there is always plenty for the eye to see. It is frequently a little murky though, and the generally dour tone of the proceedings does not lend itself to a response of awe and wonder. The character animations are still clunky even though the level of detail in design is excellent (stubble, moles, strands of hair which waft in the virtual breeze... impressive). The body movements are still artificial and the skin and hair textures do not hold up at a distance, leaving the much-vaunted realism standing at the threshold and keeping the audience from really empathising with what they see. Actors need not worry just yet about their craft, as these simulacra are still incapable of expressing much in the way of genuine emotion or in creating corresponding responses in a human viewer.

On a narrative level there is not really much here of interest. The characters are stock types and the writers are unable to rely upon an actor's face to give them the suggestion of deeper motivations. The story is well worked out, but not especially enthralling despite some vaguely spiritual mumbo-jumbo about the spirit of all living things which comes off as Shinto lite. There is no real thematic richness here, only a pretence thereof, and lacking the kind of time spent in the company of characters characteristic of the video games, the audience will not really be involved in their dilemmas.

The vocal performances are quite good, with Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, Peri Gilpin, Keith David and even Jean Simmons (!) throwing in their lot. Sutherland probably comes off best though, partly because his character is also designed with enough facial wrinkles to create the illusion of emotional expression. Woods on the other hand comes off badly because his character lacks visual nuance and thus literally becomes merely one-dimensional.

There are moments where the film comes close to something worthwhile. It never quite makes it there though and it is really little more than a grand experiment in computer generated imagery which may or may not prove an important stepping stone along a much longer road and may or may not be of academic interest as a result. There is something too studied about it to really work as an entertainment, and lacking either the distancing strategies of traditional animation or the response to photographic representation usual in live-action cinema, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within leaves itself wandering in the winds between the two. It is not a happy place for it to be (though it may be thematically appropriate), and the result is a curio item, but nothing more. Mind you, it is still better than Lara Croft: Tomb Raider or Super Mario Bros., so we should probably count our blessings that the games do not feature continuing characters or situations for the makers to get lost in. This is not really a strong enough recommendation to go and see the film though, as it will still best appeal to a hard core of video game players curious to see how the adaptation has come off and not particularly pushed about whether or not it is any good.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.