After the runaway success of Final Fantasy VII on the original Playstation, Sony greenlit a Final Fantasy movie. The final result, The Spirits Within, didn't appear on movie screens until 2001, the same year as Shrek. However, unlike the unfunny green ogre, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within failed to generate any meaningful business at the box office, and it was the biggest bomb in film history up to that point. I remember seeing it in theaters and being captivated by its memorable imagery, but left cold by its threadbare story.
Cut to 2007, and my opinion of the film still hasn't changed. It's admirable for its sweeping alien vistas and imaginative space-age designs, but the story just doesn't have enough in it to keep the audience's interest. The film follows Doctor Aki Ross (Ming-na, Disney's Mulan) as she and her mentor, Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) attempt to discover a way to clear Earth of a strange race of alien beings known as Phantoms. These Phantoms have made Earth uninhabitable, aside from a few protected cities. The film opens with Aki dreaming of an alien world, only to wake up on a space shuttle. She takes the shuttle down to Earth to find remnants of organic life. However, she's soon trapped by Phantoms, determined to kill her, when she's saved by a group of space marines, led by Captain Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin), Aki's former lover. It's soon discovered that the plant Aki was after was part of a series of organisms that Aki and Sid are collecting to assemble a spiritual wave that they believe will counter the alien infestation at its source (a giant asteroid from which the Phantoms spawn). Their theory is not a popular one, however. The human government still has armies, and their general, Hein (James Woods), has erected a giant space cannon which he intends to use to blow the asteroid to smithereens. Sid and Aki contend that this would irrevocably damage the planet, but without further proof, their protests fall on deaf ears. Now it's up to Aki, Sid, Gray, and his team to find the remaining organisms so they can finish the wavelength before Hein uses the cannon. And Aki keeps having these strange dreams...
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within feels like what Aliens might have been like had James Cameron been into New Age philosophy. The space marines (voiced by Steve Buscemi, Frasier's Peri Gilpin, and Ving Rhames) are reminiscent of those more famous marines in Cameron's film. The overall design feels like it could have been in line with that world, and the idea of the Phantoms infecting you and taking you over from the inside feels very similar to the parasitic nature of Alien's xenomorphs. In point of fact, the one thing it doesn't feel similar to in any way, shape, or form is the Final Fantasy series of video games from which it derives its name. Dr. Sid is the most notable callback, as in almost every Final Fantasy game there is a character named Cid. Also, some of the other character names vaguely resemble those found in the games. The Gaia theory posited in the film is very similar to the Living Planet of Final Fantasy VII, but to no real effect. I can understand wanting to create a fresh story that newcomers and old fans alike could enjoy, but how did anyone involved with the project think for a moment that this was going to appeal to the mob of fans who were used to Chocobos and Espers? I mean, hell, the title alone is misleading. There's not a whiff of fantasy to be found anywhere in the film. If it had been called "Final Science Fiction" perhaps it might have gone over better with audiences.
Then again, the film's half-baked idealistic philosophies, combined with its often groan-inducing dialogue probably killed the movie more than any lack of resemblance to the video games. The whole conceit of the wavelength, while explained repeatedly and in excruciating detail, never quite gels. Similarly, Hein's Zeus cannon doesn't seem like a much better alternative, and it doesn't help that he's a terribly written villain. Of course, you have to respect James Woods' ability to chew the scenery even when there isn't any actual scenery to chew. I mean no disrespect to Mr. Woods, as he's one of my favorite actors, but he's so over the top here it hurts.
The rest of the cast fare marginally better. Ming-na has a respectable voice acting pedigree that serves her well, as does Peri Gilpin (most recently heard in the animated Hellboy projects). Steve Buscemi and Ving Rhames don't take their roles too seriously, which works to their advantage. Alec Baldwin, aside from being a great actor, lends his voice to one of the most memorable cartoon characters of recent memory (that of Leonardo Leonardo from the Clerks animated series), but he plays it straight here and is fairly disappointing. It doesn't help that his character is animated to look exactly like Ben Affleck. I'm not kidding. This movie's worth renting just to see how meticulously the filmmakers recreated every facet of Affleck's face--only to give him Baldwin's voice.
That does bring up an important point, though. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was meant to be the first in a series of computer generated films that were photo realistic. And while it's clear the film is CGI, it still looks damn impressive. The character models are exquisite, making the more cartoony offerings from Pixar or Dreamworks just seem amateurish by comparison (and I know that Pixar and Dreamworks aren't striving for realism, I'm just saying how one looks against the other). The environments are amazingly detailed, and the movie is just a beauty to behold. Unfortunately, the film's complete and utter financial failure bankrupted Square Pictures, although they did manage to make The Final Flight of the Osiris for Warner Bros. Animatrix project before closing shop. Square returned in 2005/2006 with Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, which looked even more spectacular than Spirits Within, but did not see a U.S. theatrical release.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Sony presents Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 in an AVC-encoded 1080p transfer. Since the movie was made entirely on computers, all of the elements could be digitally transferred to home video with pretty much no loss of quality. And at its best, this Blu-ray offers some of the finest eye candy I've had the pleasure of watching on my HDTV. The details are tremendous, colors are perfectly balanced, everything comes together for a really sparkling image. But, unfortunately, I did notice several scenes littered throughout the movie where backgrounds suffered from posterization. Now, I'm not sure if these flaws were present in the original picture or not (I wasn't looking for it back in the movie theater in 2001), but they're really noticeable and terribly distracting. Distracting enough, I would say, to cost the image one star. It's still worth seeing for the best moments, though.
Sony's PCM 5.1 uncompressed track is about as bombastic as you might expect. You don't have to get more than five minutes into the film before all the speakers come to life, tossing sounds from front to rear and side to side like they were baseballs. The dynamic range is terrific, and dialogue is always completely audible. The Phantom effects are suitably creepy, and every part of the track works to fully immerse you in the movie.
Sony lavished The Spirits Within with a fully loaded 2-DVD set in its original release, and while not all of those features have been reproduced here, we get a good selection of them (although this release seems to have inexplicably dropped the hilarious "Thriller" parody video). Except where noted, all of the features are in 480i/p standard definition.
- Feature Commentary with Co-Director Moto Sakakbara, Sequence Supervisor Hiroyuki Hayashida, Phantom Supervisor Takoo Noguchi, and Lead Artist Tatsuro Maruyama: This is a Japanese-language track with English subtitles. Here the Japanese creative team get to share their thoughts on the film, and crack some jokes. It's clear that everyone is having a good time, making fun of each other and the other participants on the project. The common theme seems to be about not having enough time to make the image as perfect as they would have liked, but still being proud of what they accomplished. The track does tend to meander, but in a pleasant, conversational way.
- Commentary with Animation Director Andy Jones, Editor Chris Capp, and Staging Director Tani Kunitake: This is an English-language track that you can actually play at the same time as you play the subtitles for the Japanese commentary. These guys are from the American side, and while their commentary tends to be more focused directly on either the plot or the technical aspects of getting everything done, they're not nearly as interesting. Everyone is very dour, like they're watching a funeral, which, considering how The Spirits Within fared at the box office, they might as well be.
- Aki's Dream Restoration: A rather needless stringing together of all the Aki dream sequences, seemingly taken directly from the movie on the disc, as it's in 1080p high definition.
- The Making of Final Fantasy: This is listed as an "interactive documentary" and I hoped that meant it took advantage of the unique interactive capabilities Blu-ray offers, but it's a standard documentary with "Follow the White Rabbit" style pop ups that take you to supplementary content. For some bizarre reason, the main feature is cropped into a glowing blue square. Perhaps it's meant to look futuristic, perhaps it's meant to be a play on the company's name (Square), but all it does is cramp up the image and make it feel too claustrophobic. It doesn't help that the actual content provided isn't very illuminating.
- The Gray Project: This proof-of-concept design was used to sell Sony on the idea that the characters could actually be created in a realistic way. It's short, but really interesting to see how it contains all the start of all the elements that would eventually make their way to the screen.
- Character Files: Profiles of each character from the movie. Boring.
- Vehicle Scale Comparisons: Pretty much the same thing as the character profiles, but for the film's vehicles.
- Matte Explorations: A short but informative look at how matte paintings (I guess at this point used in a more figurative than literal sense) factored into two of the film's climactic sequences.
- Compositing Builds: A really lame montage of some of the effects being composited, set to terrible techno music.
- Original Opening: A really poor opening that's not nearly as dynamic or exciting as the one found in the finished film.
- Trailer Explorations: The making of the various teaser and theatrical trailers. We then get the various trailers in 1080i high definition.
- More Boards and Blasts: The original DVD set featured an extra called "Boards and Blasts," which let you watch the entire film as a combination of storyboards and early computer renderings. This feature is not present on the Blu-ray, but these few extra cast-offs are.
- Jokes and Outtakes: Some funny gags created by the animation team, most of them in very rough form.
- On The Set With Aki: Back when The Spirits Within was developed, the filmmakers had the idea of putting Aki Ross into other films, some of them even live action. This little short shows how they would have gone about doing that. It starts with Aki doing a scene from the movie, and someone yells cut, and she walks off the CGI set into a real life studio. It's a pretty cool little gimmick, and nowadays having CGI actors next to real actors isn't as bizarre of a concept, but I can see why the idea of a recurring Aki Ross didn't take off.
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within deserved a better fate than it got at the box office, but that doesn't mean it's a great movie. While it certainly was a great technological breakthrough, it didn't have the story or characters to make it work. This Blu-ray edition looks incredible at its best, but some image flaws keep it from being perfect. The sound is very active and a significant improvement over the DVD version. As far as extras go, this release ports over some but not all of the supplements from the DVD version, and a few of the omissions are rather glaring. Still, there's enough here to make the disc worth at least one viewing. Rent It.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.