Monday, February 2, 2015

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within


  The year 2001 seems like forever ago, it was the year we first got Lord of the Rings on the big screen (Bakshi's version nonwithstanding) and Harry Potter for that matter. Not to mention hundreds of other incredibly good and famous movies that people remember fondly to this day. Then there was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Now, I dunno. I can readily see why fans of the game franchise would be pissed off with this movie. It has literally nothing to do with the games. Who thought that would be a good idea? I don't know. Nevertheless, non-fans (myself included) found it fairly accessible, realizing they wouldn't have to be on the up-and-up with the games to understand the movie. The result? A largely mixed bag that serves as an incredibly interesting piece of history, ripe to be explored and discussed.

  As a movie itself, The Spirits Within isn't bad. It's exciting, flashy, and full of action. It's brimming with concepts and ideas that are much bigger than could adequately be explored within the confining runtime of a feature film. The Spirits Within needed to have it's own game series. I would've played it. On the other hand, nothing about blonde kids with spiky anime hair and obnoxiously gigantic swords appeals to me. I know I probably just alienated a bunch of readers, but as consumers in a media-obsessed culture we all have to look from the outside in. We have to judge books by their covers, and we have to make decisions on what we see. To me, the Final Fantasy games look like the epitome of what I hate in gaming. Anime style, turn based, RPG fantasy games make my skin crawl.

  Some people love it, I get that, I'm cool with that, but since The Spirits Within isn't even a remote adaptation of the games or their stories, the most you can even complain about is that they used the name "Final Fantasy". Beyond that, this movie has to be judged as it's own beast. When I talk about the 'concepts and ideas' in The Spirits Within, I really don't mean it's whole Gaia theory. The environmental message in this movie is snore-worthy. It's really sad when you find yourself as annoyed with the protagonists as the main villain is.

  "So, if I point a gun at the Earth, and fire... I'm not just shooting dirt, I'm killing the Earth?" he asks, sardonically at one point. A line clearly meant to make him seem like a douchebag, but I'll be damned if it didn't make me smile. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for making sure we take care of the planet we live on, it's not like we have a backup... but I don't need that message shoved down my throat in my movies. In almost every sci-fi movie with an environmental message, the plot and characters suffer greatly. They only just get by in this movie, and no thanks to the computer animation either. Which is where I'm torn. I think if this movie had been live action, it would've been easier to watch, and might've had more shelf life... but at the same time, it probably wouldn't have gotten as much notice, or been as memorable.

  Not to mention the technological achievements they accomplished in making something like this. Despite how dated it looks, there are moments you can easily forget you're watching computer generated models move about in a digital environment. There are some fantastic shots in the movie, and it's visually stunning at times. Which helps. It feels like it has all the bones of an amazing sci-fi movie, but none of the guts. Dr. Aki Ross is cute and stoic, but she's a one-note character. No matter how well she's rendered, her emotional range is kind of stunted. Which can't be said for all the characters. Maybe it's just the other voice actors breathing life into their characters, but some of the secondary characters are simply fantastic.

  Computer animation needed to mature a bit before an experimental movie like this was made. At the same time, it's experiments like The Spirits Within that push the boundaries and advance the technology. Nevertheless, I'm feeling particularly scatterbrained today. The concepts and ideas I love in this movie, are the elements that almost get sidestepped. Alot of the technology they use, the little gadgets, gizmos. All of these things would be put to much better use either in a long standing film franchise, or a video game series. Who wouldn't love to play as one of the Deep Eyes soldiers? Shit, I'd love to. Sign me up dammit. And the aliens... in this movie, are ghosts. Taking the Starship Troopers aesthetic to a whole new level. It's a mind blowing concept put to great use here, and then quickly forgotten altogether once the movie bombed.

  Granted, some would point me towards the Mass Effect games, and I would explain to them I've already played them, and the ending last one left me cold and wanting. Ick. I'm a fanboy. I have gripes. Get over it. Nonetheless, it is interesting to point out the connections between Mass Effect and this movie. Stylistically, they're kissing cousins. But the low key ambiance in the earlier scenes of the movie, and the Earth-based globe-trotting adventuring featured in the rest of it, are not things I felt directly echoed into Mass Effect. Those games played more towards Star Trek or Firefly. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is a huge heap of potential just waiting to be tapped into again.

  It's a shame it had no real audience to love it and connect with it. It's technological feats were praised, but it's ideas were left alone to collect dust while the company behind the movie went bankrupt and shut down, with no intentions of ever expanding on the world they created here. The movie is dated, a little stiff, and unfortunately more lifeless than it has any right to be, but it still surprised me. It's probably my third viewing of it since it came out, and it's never looked better than it has on Blu-Ray. All the glowing x-rays, holograms, and alien ghosts make for stunning atmosphere and fantastic visual treats that movies today are still struggling to adequately deliver.

  The action scenes are impressive. The filmmakers made use of the fact they were working in a digital environment, putting the camera places you couldn't normally, capturing the action from exciting and unexpected angles. A huge chunk of this movie reminds me of Starship Troopers, and that's a good thing. The difference is that this movie has a strange sort of technical freedom in things like lighting and camera movement. It's unhinged in a way that you couldn't get in a live action movie. On top of that, there are settings and scenery that are just breathtakingly intricate and eye-popping. More than the special glowing gadgets and creatures, it's these shots that create the atmosphere of The Spirits Within.

  All in all, for a movie about souls, spirits and ghosts, it could've used a bit more heart. That's not to say the characters are devoid of merit. I liked them. They were if anything, likable. I heard that they had planned for the likeness and model of Aki Ross to be a digital actress and star in other movies, becoming a cornerstone of their studio. I would've loved to have seen her become ever more realistic over time. It's nothing short of a shame that this neat little sci-fi gem is all but forgotten, save for the hateful comments in passing by a bunch of bitter Final Fantasy fans lurking on internet forum boards. Those are not the right people to appreciate this movie. Mass Effect fans might enjoy this, and certainly those looking for something more in their sci-fi movies. It's short on feeling, but huge on neat and original ideas.  Well worth watching for the visuals alone, and definitely worth a look if you can stand the semi-dated looking CGI.

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