My 100 Favourite Films In Review – Number 64, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

64 – Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within:

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Ah…video game movies. They don’t have much of a good reputation, do they? Ever since video games became a thing in the 80s and 90s, movie studios have seen another potential medium to farm ideas from. Much like adapting from plays, musicals, books, comics, radio dramas etc. – basing a movie on a video game is always a tricky deal. Not a lot of video games have plots that lend themselves well to films. Fighting games or shooting games for example tend to only have the bare necessities of a plot – and the main draw is the gameplay rather than the story. And once you take away the player’s control, you’re left with a shallow story that no one wants to see. The flipside is to adapt a role playing game, which usually will have a deeper story – but that can have too much plot to cram into two hours. And we haven’t yet got to the stage where you can stretch a video game’s story across an entire franchise of films (though this year’s War Craft certainly seems to be trying). I don’t agree with the sentiment that all video game movies are terrible. Don’t hang me, but I think the first Resident Evil movie and both Tekken adaptations are quite decent – and I enjoyed War Craft more than I was expecting to. But you’ve probably guessed by now what my favourite video game movie actually is. If not, the title can clue you in.

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“Hint: it starts with two Fs, which coincidentally is what will happen to you if you don’t say nice things now.”

 

Final Fantasy was a video game franchise that started in Japan in the early 90s. The company Squaresoft (now Square-Enix) were going bankrupt, and they expected that they would produce one last game before disappearing completely – hence the ‘Final’ in the title. A role-playing game set in a pseudo medieval European fantasy world turned into a smash hit. The popularity led to more games being produced. By the time Final Fantasy VII came along, the Western world was starting to take notice too. Square-Enix are now on their fifteenth edition of the series, having made billions worldwide.

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Each Final Fantasy game is unique – and usually unrelated. For example, Final Fantasy III is not a sequel to Final Fantasy II. They are two different worlds, different stories and different continuities – with different gameplay mechanisms of course. Each entry is unconnected to its previous one. But with Final Fantasies VII and X, gamers just had to see more of the worlds and characters – and continuations were produced. Outside of the main series, there’s a heap of spin-offs, prequels, sequels and crossovers. There was also a theatrical film, released in 2001.

The film took four years to produce – so long in fact that the initial footage had to be rendered again to match the advancing technology. Rather than going for live action, they used CGI for the whole film. You’d think nothing of that now, but remember that Toy Story only came out in 1994. It would be a long time before we’d get the dazzling backdrops of Pandora in Avatar. What made this film very tricky was that it went for photo-realistic CGI. Pixar avoided making films about humans for so long precisely for this reason. Realistic humans are very hard to render properly in CGI – because they often look like dead people brought back to life. They managed it nonetheless. What was also working against this film’s favour was the fact that it wasn’t an adaptation of any of the Final Fantasy titles that had been released at that point.

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It makes perfect sense if you consider the context of the game series. None of the games are connected to each other in any way, so the film shouldn’t be either. But you can bet that many fans were pissed that their favourite game wasn’t getting adapted. What also raises eyebrows is the fact that the film is set on Earth. A futuristic version, but Earth nonetheless. All other Final Fantasies had their own original worlds. But remember that this is before Lord of the Rings was a worldwide hit. And think back as to how many mainstream films were set in elaborate fantasy worlds before we got so used to Middle Earth. This is also probably why they chose to make it a sci-fi story, rather than more traditional fantasy. There’s also merit to the two famous games in the west – VII and VIII – being sci-fi themed as well.

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Note the industrial lights

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We open with our main character, Dr Aki Ross. The CGI ‘actress’ was planned to have a lengthy career – starring in several other animated films after this one. There were even rumblings in the SAG about animated actors putting live action ones out of business. But the film’s disappointing Box Office numbers put the kibosh on those plans, so Aki only stars in this film.

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She did get onto the Maxim Hot 100 though.

Aki is already quite a sight to behold in terms of CGI animation. Remember how the animation in Toy Story doesn’t look as cutting edge as it did back in 1994? Remember how CGI always looks outdated as soon as the technology advances? Well you really don’t get that in this film. I’m actually surprised – watching this film back in so long – that the animation holds up so well. This is 2001 – right as Gollum was being developed. The animation is spectacular. Aki’s hair especially is just the animators showing off. As I said back in the Tangled review, hair is very tricky to animate properly. 60,000 hairs were generated and animated, with a fifth of production time dedicated just for them. If you wonder why Aki has a tendency to shake her head a lot in this film, that’s just to show off the technology.

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And because she’s worth it.

And you’ll notice that the female council member has short, immobile hair – and the Deep Eye Jane keeps hers tied back. So Aki is the only one who really gets to flip her hair back and forth. As far as skin tones go, the movie pulls them off quite well too. Not well enough to avoid putting off some viewers who find them too realistic – but a little less creepy than some of the models in The Polar Express. The backdrops of course don’t get neglected in favour of the character models, and they are just as beautiful as in any Final Fantasy game.

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Aki is having a strange dream that she has almost every night; it’s of a strange, far-off planet. She has all the dreams recorded in the technology that exists in 2065 – which must come in very useful for people who get inspired by their dreams. There’s probably not much inspiration going on – as Earth is under an alien invasion. Extra-terrestrial creatures they’ve dubbed the Phantoms have reduced the population to a shell of its former self. Put it this way; Aki flies her airship, the Black Boa, through the ruins of ‘Old New York City’.

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Aki searches through the ruins using some nifty 2065 technology – that illuminates a person’s spirit. I kid you not; human souls glow blue, while Phantoms glow red. Phantoms are invisible and can only be illuminated by technology like this. Really savvy Final Fantasy fans will realise the sudden parallels between an enemy that’s mostly invisible and the familiar battle system in the games. Random battles will usually start when the player is walking around certain locations – which is represented quite well here.

Although she’s attacked by the Phantoms, Aki is saved by a squad known as the Deep Eyes. Did you expect a CGI film based on a video game set in a post-apocalyptic Earth to NOT have space marines? Note that there are four Deep Eyes. In traditional Final Fantasy games, your battle party is made up of four (three in games VII, VIII and X). With Aki not being a trained fighter herself, that makes her a guest party member who doesn’t share the items or EXP.

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“Pfft. I don’t *need* your EXP.”

The Deep Eyes order Aki to get the F out of there – since this is a restricted area. She insists that there’s a lifeform here that she absolutely has to get. She also gives them permission to arrest her, as long as she gets the lifeform first. I bet you’re thinking that you’ve heard Aki’s voice somewhere before. It depends whether you identify as a Disney or Marvel fan first…

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Aki finds the lifeform – a little stalk of a plant – and successfully extracts it. After a little fighting with the Phantoms, the Deep Eyes successfully extract themselves from the ruins and get back onto their ship. Once they’re safe, they remove their helmets and introduce each other.

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Ryan – the sergeant, and your typical deep, badass black guy. He’s voiced by Ving Rhames, emphasising the badassery.

Jane – she’s essentially a white Vasquez, and slings out a lot more trash talk. She’s voiced by Peri Gilpin, immediately taking viewers back to the heyday of Frasier.

Neil – plucky comic relief who is thankfully legitimately funny rather than annoying. He’s voiced by Steve Buscemi, who improvised about 90% of his dialogue.

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Gray – the captain, who also turns out to be an old boyfriend of Aki’s. Despite being heavily modelled to look like a post-apocalyptic Ben Affleck, he’s voiced by Alec Baldwin.

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Herein lies where the movie slips up. We’ve seen all these characters before. Neil and Jane’s banter is fun – but we already saw it between Hudson and Vasquez. Aki and Grey are pretty much every couple in a 90s movie that start off separated, only to fall back in love over the course of the adventure. Gray disagreeing with authority is pretty much in every 80s and 90s sci-fi story featuring the military. The film builds such an interesting setting and gets really creative with the little stuff – and it’s too bad the characters are so predictable. They’re perfectly likeable, but not that memorable.

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And NONE of them has a sword with its own zipcode. What’s up with that?

The Deep Eyes take Aki to the safe part of New York City. It’s kept inside a barrier that repels Phantoms – which is again a nice way of enforcing the trope that battles don’t happen inside towns and settlements in the games. Before they can get inside, they have to be scanned to make sure they’re ‘clean’ – something Aki seems reluctant to do. When Gray is scanned, the alarm goes off. He must have come into contact with a Phantom, and he’ll be code red in 3 ½ minutes. Luckily, Aki is trained to deal with such emergencies.

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Okay, I might find the supporting cast to be very clichéd, but I think Aki is a pretty decent lead. I remember that the Wachowskis said that they tried very hard to come up with a female protagonist that wasn’t just “Arnold Schwarzenegger with boobs” – and used empathy rather than violence. Their attempt at that – Jupiter Ascending – sadly resulted in a protagonist who was ridiculously passive and contributed nothing to her whole plot for over an hour of film. Aki meanwhile isn’t an action girl, but she still plays a vital role in the story. She gets to rely on her brain, rather than her weapons. And indeed, she removes the Phantom particles from Grey. But I have to say, if they’d gone hunting for the lifeform in Chicago, this wouldn’t be an issue.

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Simmer down, Tris.

Before she has to be scanned, Aki is relieved by her colleague Dr Sid. Every Final Fantasy has a character called that (but with a C usually), and this movie is no exception. Dr Sid is the one we have to thank for the technology regarding the Phantoms – the protection, the weapons, the treatment etc. He and Aki are working on something but we’re only twenty minutes in, so we don’t get to hear what it is just yet. Oh and he’s voiced by Donald Sutherland – and it’s refreshing to see him doing something constructive in a bad future for once.

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Sid shows Aki his old diary, when he was studying how the Earth worked. According to the diary, “all life is born of Gaia”. Gaia is the spirit of the Earth, and any lifeforms that die return to the Gaia to be born again. So it’s pretty much the Lifestream from FFVII, making this one of the more direct references in the movie. Sid burns the diary, warning that the Council is looking for any excuse to discredit them. He also advises Aki to destroy anything that could be used against her. In the next scene, we see her promptly ignoring that advice as she records another dream.

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“Seriously? What did I JUST say?”

In this one, she witnesses the start of a battle between two alien armies. But she now goes to a meeting with the Council. We also meet our antagonist, General Hein. As far as villains go, General Hein is unfortunately pretty forgettable. He hates the Phantoms because his wife and daughter died during an attack, and just wants to blow them all up. Final Fantasy villains are usually memorable in their own way. Not necessarily in motivations, as most of them just want to either destroy the world or rule it – so Hein falls within those parameters. But the Final Fantasy villains usually have memorable costumes, distinct personalities or these really quotable lines.

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General Hein would probably make a good secondary antagonist – a boss that you close the second disk with. But this movie was really missing a Sephiroth/Kefka/Kuja/Ultimecia type who could really provide memorable moments. Oh and Hein is voiced by James Woods. If you jump for joy at James Woods voicing another villain, I’d hold your horses. Hein is nothing like Hades, so you unfortunately spend most of the movie hoping he’ll crack at least one joke.

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Come on, not even a knock-knock joke?

Anyway, back to the plot. General Hein wants to fire the Zeus Cannon at the site where the Phantoms first crashed. A meteor carrying a wave of monsters is a pretty direct reference to Final Fantasy V I’m told – so there’s another one. The counter argument to Hein’s suggestion is that using the Zeus Cannon could potentially damage the Earth itself. This means that Sid has to voice his Gaia theory to the Council. Naturally, General Hein scoffs at this. Sid has to now explain his and Aki’s plan: to gather a series of spirits that will act as a counter wave to the Phantom spirits – and cancel each other out. They just need two more lifeforms.

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Aki has to help Sid by revealing that there is plenty of merit to this theory – as they’ve successfully contained Phantom particles inside a terminally infected patient. And that patient is her. The particles are contained within her chest plate. Oh and Grey is also in the crowd, so her secret is out in the open to him too.

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“Awwwkwaaaaaaaarrrd.”

So it should come as no surprise when Grey pays Aki a visit while she’s in a cable car to scan for the seventh spirit. It does come as a surprise to Jane when Neil and Ryan tamper with the electronics to strand them – and thus give them time to talk. After the obligatory post-break up tension, the former lovers talk about the spirit waves. They’ve collected six so far: Aki herself is the first and the rest are made up of a deer, a fish, a sparrow and that plant from the city. Things get really serious when she talks about the fifth spirit – a little girl dying in a hospital, who said she was ready to die. The girl would have played a bigger role in earlier drafts, but got cut as time went on.

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Presumably she also fell in love the way you fall asleep.

Grey is called to General Hein’s office with the news that he and the Deep Eyes are being reassigned: to go with Aki whenever she’s out in the field. He is to report any “abhorrent behaviour” in Aki. After all, she has an alien infection inside her. And if the infection appears to be influencing her in any way, she’s to be arrested. Just to be safe, some of General Hein’s men will also join them. Fans with keen ears will recognise the voice of the Major in this scene.

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Aki has another lengthy dream – longer even than the last one. She’s convinced it means two things: a) it’s some form of communication, and b) it’s a sign that the Phantoms inside are beginning to win. Her next journey takes her out to a battle site from a “cleansing mission” years ago. The seventh spirit is not a hawk flying through the air, but actually a dead soldier’s energy pack. Aki can’t finish explaining why this is possible – because there’s a Phantom attack!

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The Phantoms do a rather gruesome description of how they suck the spirits out of one of the two mooks General Hein sent. Aki collapses due to the infection inside her. That’s enough for the other Hein mook to demand Aki be arrested. Grey of course says bollocks to this. We then see Aki finish her dream. The battle between the armies leads to total destruction of everything.

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As Aki wakes up so suddenly, the mook shoots her right in the chest plate. Grey is spared a more direct act of mutiny when a passing Phantom kills said mook. General Hein gets the news, and orders everyone involved to be arrested. He also has a plan to convince the Council to order the Zeus Cannon fired. In the lab, Dr Sid has to implant the seventh spirit directly into Aki’s chest plate to save her. Grey has to be a spiritual life support to keep her with them while they operate.

This means he gets to see the inside of her dream. Unfortunately, remember how Aki had all of her other ones recorded? Well, General Hein now gets to watch them. That’s all the evidence he needs to discredit Dr Sid’s research. But Hein thinks they’ll need to take things up a notch to really sway the Council. Aki’s most recent dream also takes things up a notch – showing that the destruction happened to the entire planet!

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They wake up to find themselves placed under arrest – and this time it sticks. We now get to hear General Hein’s Freudian Excuse, which is already detailed earlier if you just scroll up. He then takes charge of the control room – and orders the barrier to be weakened. As in allowing the Phantoms to breach the barrier. In the cells, Aki raises a good point to explain her new theory: they have never been able to distinguish a relationship between any of the Phantoms. That is extremely odd for an invading army. Aki theorises that they’re not invaders; the meteor that brought them here was just a chunk of their planet that got blown to Earth when their world was destroyed. How did they survive the trip, you ask?

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This theory is given a rapid confirmation when Phantoms now start moving through the pipes – through energy that no living thing could survive. It’s quickly a massacre, and only General Hein escapes alive. But what does he have to say before he flees?

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James Woods isn’t even trying to make that line sound anything less than clichéd. Meanwhile, the power starts failing in the city – and that includes the locks on the jail cell. Our group sees the chaos that is happening, and have to make a break for it in a car chase that would undoubtedly be a super-fun level if this were a video game too. It’s not too fun for the characters, as the impact leaves Ryan trapped in an uncomfortable place.

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They give him a weapon while they go find Aki’s ship to get the necessary tools to cut him out. The characters split up to find various things, in what feels like a standard item hunt from one of the games. Everything is going to plan, except the Black Boa is still coupled to the floor. Neil and Jane have to detach it manually, but of course they’re attacked. Jane attacks back “with extreme prejudice” but it’s too late to save Neil!

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On my first watch, I actually didn’t see that coming. If only because the Final Fantasy games rarely kill off main characters until the end. But remember how there was one significant death that every gamer remembers?

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I feel as if the filmmakers were trying to recapture the sudden shock and heartbreak of Aerith’s death. They got the suddenness alright. And I was sad to see Neil killed off. But I feel as if we weren’t necessarily given enough time with him to really make his death hurt. Aerith technically died early on too – at the end of the first disc. But that was still after we had spent lots of time with her and she looked as if she was going to play a huge role in the story. Obviously a ninety-minute film couldn’t quite replicate that feeling, but I do give them points for effort. The following sequence of Jane eventually giving up and allowing herself to be killed is shockingly effective too.

Things get even worse as Ryan ends up killed by a Phantom while saving Gray. The captain gets savvy to the theme and orders Aki and Sid to get out of here. But Aki flies the Black Boa over to get him, thus keeping a party of three intact. This is also a pretty clever way of referencing how the player in a Final Fantasy game never gets an airship until the last third of the story.

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After Aki and Gray kiss in zero gravity, we’re shown that General Hein is approaching the Zeus Cannon. A brief Skype with a Council member tells us that he has confirmation to fire on the Phantom Crater. That’s a big uh-oh for the protagonists – because the eighth spirit is in there! It’s a Phantom Spirit, and Aki and Gray will have to go down and complete the wave in the crater.

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“Gotta say, I don’t like our chances.”

They go down into the crater in a special ship with a shield to block the Phantoms. Too bad that General Hein fires on them. It achieves a hat trick of uh-ohs by a) destroying the eighth spirit, b) leaving Gray and Aki trapped in the crater, and c) unleashing some kind of monstrous Phantom Gaia. Something that is perfectly in line with the Final Fantasy theme – as the end usually features a giant monster as the final boss.

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Aki tries to appeal to General Hein’s sanity but you can guess how well that works out. The blasts from the cannon result in the Phantom Gaia getting even stronger. Despite warnings that the system is overheating, he keeps on firing. Aki and Gray’s shield fails, so they have to leave the ship. But they find themselves looking at Gaia. The Earth’s Gaia, colour-coded blue to distinguish it from the red Phantom Gaia. Sid tells them that they’ll easily find a compatible spirit down there now. Aki then slips into a vision that looks an awful lot like an attack called The End from Final Fantasy VIII.

When she regains consciousness, she realises that she now has the eighth spirit, she’s cured and the wave is complete. But before they can finish projecting it, a blast from the Zeus Cannon throws a curveball in there. This actually destroys the entire space station, putting an end to General Hein and his ideas. It doesn’t however put an end to the plan, as Gray realises that they need a final spirit to complete the wave. As he appears to have been badly wounded in the Zeus Cannon, he makes the ideal candidate. And there’s your tear jerker Aerith moment.

“You’ve been trying to tell me that death isn’t the end. Don’t back out on me now I finally believe.”

Gray’s sacrifice results in the spirit wave being completed, and the Phantom Gaia destroyed. Dr Sid walks to the edge of the crater, seeing the various spirits returning to the Gaia. Aki carries Gray’s body to the top as – rather poetically – the sun rises for the first time in the film. More poetically, Aki sees the same bird from earlier; the one “waiting for life to return”. The movie ends on that bittersweet note that life will hopefully return to the Earth now the Phantoms are gone.

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Square Pictures had big plans for this film. $85 million worldwide might seem like a lot of money, but the budget was $137 million. So yeah, that is a spectacular bomb. Square Pictures dissolved before they could even get off the ground, and their upcoming merger with Enix was delayed as a result. They were wise to not release any standalone films afterwards, and their next project was a direct sequel to Final Fantasy VII. I feel like this film gets a bit of an unfair backlash. They say it’s clichéd, which it is in parts. It certainly uses a lot of common tropes – mean authority figure with a Freudian Excuse, space marines who rebel against authority – to its detriment. But to me, it avoids being clichéd in a bad way. A recent example of a movie that is clichéd in a really bad way is last year’s Pan. Bland, unoriginal and no thought given to the world-building or characters. Final Fantasy at least does make the setting interesting, if not the characters. Avatar was a similar deal. They use clichés, but they know how to use them well. And as a diehard Final Fantasy fan, I can still appreciate this movie as a standalone idea. It was an interesting concept to find ways to justify the various tropes from the gameplay in a real world setting – not to mention putting in plenty of little nods to the games themselves. Looking at it objectively, I can still enjoy what I’m watching. But yes, I would have loved an adaptation of my personal favourite Final Fantasy too.

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But sorry, movie, you’re getting graded just like the rest of us.

*Story? It’s a mixed bag. As I said earlier, the setting, premise and overall flavouring are pretty well thought out. The narrative is where the cliché comes in. Not as clichéd as Avatar but it’s noticeable. B-

*Characters? The film’s weakest part, since they’re all stock to some extent. They’re all perfectly fine but not too original. General Hein is probably the weakest of the bunch. Nonetheless, I thought Aki was a good enough lead. C+

*Performances? Aside from James Woods, everyone was on form. I think Ming-Na Wen was the only cast member to have any voice acting experience, but they all performed pretty well. Steve Buscemi apparently improvised most of his stuff, resulting in Neil being a bit of a scene-stealer. Alec Baldwin played a role with a surprising amount of heart to it. B+

*Visuals? For a film that takes place mostly on desolate landscapes and clinical buildings, it sure is pretty. The visual stuff is the main selling point, and it’s truly a sight to behold. The Phantoms were given some great designs, and the colours were all nice and striking. A+

*Special Effects? Stunning graphics to simulate photo-realistic humans. I was a naïve child when I watched this and I couldn’t tell whether it was animated or live-action. The CGI still holds up quite impressively, although maybe not as solidly as some of the better Pixar films. A+

*Anything Else? Despite not being a direct adaptation of the games, there are still lots of little things put in there that only diehard fans would pick up on. It clearly was made with affection for the source material, even though it didn’t have the desired reaction with fans. Major points for effort though. B

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We take a trip to the fading days of the Golden Age, with the gothic horror story What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?

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