Game vs. Watch – Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
In Game vs. Watch, Tyler takes a look at video games and the feature film adaptations that they inspired. Most of these adaptations are terrible.
Final Fantasy (Nintendo Entertainment System, 1987)
Four kids, known as the Light Warriors, appear in the Kingdom of Corneria, each possessing an elemental Orb. The power of each Orb has been repressed by a corresponding Elemental Fiend: The Lich (Earth), Tiamat (Wind), Kary (Fire) and Kraken (Water). The Light Warriors must journey across Corneria and the adjacent lands in order to find and defeat each Elemental Fiend, and restore balance to nature.
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (Sony Pictures, 2001)
Fifty years from now, the Earth is no longer habitable, plagued by alien spirits which suck the life force out of any living creature they come in contact with. They arrived on a meteor which struck the planet and burrow deeper into the planet with each new physical attack. Dr. Aki Ross (Ming-Na Wen) and Dr. Cid (Donald Sutherland) have an alternate idea: create a device that emits an energy frequency that will simply cancel out the energy frequency of the invaders. To do that, however, they must collect a series of “spirits” from Earth. It’s part of Dr. Cid’s controversial theory that the Earth itself has a spirit, called Gaia, which would be fatally wounded by General Hein (James Woods) and his Zeus Cannon, the latest military technology that aims to kill the aliens.
Yeah, okay: it’s kind of a cheat to compare Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within to any of the games. The film, like each subsequent Final Fantasy game, is not a sequel but an original story with new characters and worlds to explore. At the same time, the spirit (ho ho ho) of the games’ approach to nature and the universe does kind of inform the movie, and in any case, it’s hard to ignore a project that was so ambitious—and so rejected by the target audience—that it bankrupted an entire film studio that was built, essentially, for the sole purpose of making the film, and set back what many were trumpeting as the future of animation for nearly the rest of the decade.
Production on The Spirits Within began in October 1997, nine months after the Japanese debut and one month of the US debut of Final Fantasy VII on the PlayStation. Although the film would not hit theaters for another four years, there’s a sense that Squaresoft felt untouchable for a few months, willing to try anything in the heat of major commercial success. The Square Pictures offices were built in Honolulu at a cost of $45M, and Square boasted that the facilities would be a place where the company could form a groundbreaking bridge between filmmaking and video games for years into the future.
In picking apart the film’s financial failure, the most interesting thing is examining the creative choices that were meant to help it succeed. First and foremost, The Spirits Within entered production at a time when fantasy films were box office poison, and opened just a few months before Lord of the Rings finally began to turn the tide. The film shies away from the genre most of the games occupy, even the steampunk blend of fantasy and technology that gamers were happy to embrace in Final Fantasy VII, opting instead for a space opera, complete with chases in spaceships and laser-filled gunfights.
Characters are simplified (the idealistic doctors, the old flame, the aggressive and foolish military) in favor of a more complex universe, filled with heady concepts about faith and life energy. Frankly, Hironobu Sakaguchi and screenwriters Al Reinert and Jeff Vintar appear to have intentionally ripped off Star Wars, even down to Dr. Cid’s insistence that “luck has nothing to do with it.” Similarly, Dr. Ross’ apocalyptic dreams echo Sarah Connor’s in Terminator 2, and the “military team” dynamic is reminiscent of Aliens.
It’s also very likely that the filmmakers believed a sci-fi movie would simply be a better showcase for the technology they’d developed, which allows for plenty of recognizable “objects” to impress the viewer with how realistically they’ve been rendered (the camera lingers on things like a ship’s wheel touching down on concrete), but also allows for visually impressive flourishes like zero gravity, laser guns, hologram control panels, and the translucent spirit invaders. Really, the entire idea of the spirits themselves, which pass freely through solid surfaces, has the air of a computer animation disadvantage being turned into a characteristic.
The photorealism was the core of the film’s promotional campaign. It’s likely that Sony hoped to lure in a broader audience that had no interest in science fiction by stressing the groundbreaking visuals on display. Article after article appeared, stressing the boldness and bravery in attempting such a big leap forward, much like The Matrix (released two years earlier). The studio even pushed Dr. Ross as a sex symbol, allowing the character to appear in Maxim’s Hot 100 in 2001, a marketing tactic that is simultaneously sensible (demographic-wise) and yet totally weird (everything else-wise). IMDb Trivia cheerfully notes: “She is the only nonexistent person to date to make the list.”
Despite all these concessions, Sakaguchi’s film is so removed from anything resembling a traditional American blockbuster it’s kind of funny. Although the film was intentionally shot in English (at a time when studios cared more about the US box office take instead of the international numbers), the ideas in it feel distinctly Japanese, focusing on spiritual matters and their intersection with nature. Audiences were promised a sci-fi spectacle involving demonic-looking ghosts and action-packed battles, and instead they were treated to Dr. Ross making impassioned speeches arguing against the use of a giant space cannon for the sake of Mother Earth. It’s not really a surprise that the viewers at the opening-day show I attended back in 2001 became restless and uncomfortable with the film’s overabundance of sensitivity and compassion, especially considering the movie’s prime mid-summer release date.
One vintage article I glanced at in research for this piece boldly proclaimed, “Tom Hanks better watch his back.” Viewed today, the most distracting aspect of the animation is how it fluctuates in quality, with some shots displaying the default, “plastic” appearance of computer graphic objects, while others have a more natural, even relatively convincing appearance that holds up almost 15 years later. Admittedly, the characters exhibit the “dead-eyed” look that puts many people off of photorealistic animation, and lip synching is almost entirely terrible, but these flaws only really detract when the characters are meant to be overwhelmed with emotion or shown in close-up (or both). It’s funny: years of watching actual video game animation make it easy enough to engage with the characters in The Spirits Within, especially considering the perfectly decent vocal performances by the film’s star-studded cast.
Without the overbearing expectations placed on The Spirits Within at the time of release, the film is also pretty decent. A handful of other films have since followed in the film’s footsteps (the most recent being Starship Troopers: Invasion), and Sakaguchi’s direction easily places this above its contemporaries. Where others have indulged in the possibility of complete freedom to move the camera, Sakaguchi stays mostly within the parameters of reality, which not only keeps the focus on the characters, but helps them feel more like real people. Instead of showing off, he uses the technology to realize unusual action beats, such as a moment where a threatening soldier in the back of a ship has his soul suddenly sucked out by a passing spirit, and executes these ideas with clarity and excitement.
The story is neatly broken up by Aki’s wild dream sequences, which provide spectacle and give the film a strong structure, even when the Gaia elements come off as silly or incomprehensible. The film’s artful, soulful message about how we treat the planet is a little preachy, but there have been plenty of other sci-fi dystopias, especially as of late, which explore equally preachy ideas, yet offer no innovation or intrigue in terms of style or direction. Although ambition is arguably what sinks The Spirits Within, it’s also the film’s most admirable quality. It’s a pure and wild bit of artistic experimentation, made at the exact and fleeting moment when Squaresoft believed they had nothing to lose.
The film’s financial failure had serious repercussions. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within limped to only $32M in grosses in the United States against its massive $137M budget, and an additional $53M from international territories didn’t do much to stop the bleeding. Although they would eventually make the Animatrix short The Final Flight of the Osiris and Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (which basically did the exact opposite of The Spirits Within in serving as a sequel to the franchise’s most popular game), Square Pictures was shuttered shortly after the film’s release. Furthermore, in case killing a film franchise and the studio that produced it wasn’t enough, the film also drove a surprisingly enduring coffin nail through an entire style of animation.
In the United States, only Robert Zemeckis’ ImageMovers Digital has attempted anything like it (Beowulf, The Polar Express). That studio also closed its doors after releasing Mars Needs Moms, a film took the crown of biggest box office bomb of all time … six slots “above” The Spirits Within. With animation technology continuing to improve, there’s little doubt someone will try again, but it’s really remarkable how The Spirits Within went from the next big thing to a cautionary tale, doomed to be mentioned as “the risk” whenever someone suggests photorealistic CGI is the future of filmmaking.