Director: Hironobu Sakaguchi
Screenplay: Al Reinert and Jeff Vintar
Inspired by the videogame series produced by Square Enix
Voice Cast: Ming-Na Wen (as Doctor Aki Ross); Alec Baldwin (as Captain Gray Edwards); Ving Rhames (as Ryan); Steve Buscemi (as Neil); Peri Gilpin (as Jane); Donald Sutherland (as Dr. Sid); James Woods (as General Hein)
Viewed with English Dub
Over the last twenty reviews there's been an inexplicable build-up towards a review of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, a spin-off adaptation of the legendary RPG videogame franchise. A US-Japan co-production, it would be the only feature film made by Square Enix's film department Square Pictures before the box office failure of this film collapsed them, only to be heard again one last time to contribute to The Animatrix (2003), an anthology tribute to The Matrix's clear anime influences. The first anime film which used three dimensional character designs and landscapes was (entry #3) A.LI.CE (1999), a brave experiment but less than the sun of its parts, whilst many films and straight-to-video works that would come after it of the same ilk would become doomed by the hype that surrounded this big blockbuster. The likes of A.LI.CE, Malice@Doll (2001) and (entry #16) Galerians: Rion (2002) would become immediately obsolete in comparison to this film and its than state-of-the-art and realistic character designs and budget. The hype, that I remember still to this day growing up when this film was supposed to mean something, was huge, the scope of it meant to revolutionise this type of filmmaking. Like many of hyped blockbuster before it actually gets released, the future is reaped with irony. What might've been a warning sign that this hype might've been a bit silly, if I was an adult back then, was that like anime heroines and fictitious female characters from games like Lara Croft, there was already a cheesecake shot of Professor Aki Ross, who in the film is a meek and sombre woman who is more interested in gathering plants and animals to save the Earth, in a bikini before there was proof that she'd be remembered as an iconic character. There were plans for the character design to be a reoccurring actress in more animated films like one of Osamu Tezuka's favourite roll call of characters who'd appear in multiple roles in different manga of his.
Then it failed at the box office. With fifteen years of hindsight, it was an admirable and important push for realism and scope that shouldn't be ignored. The idea that it would lead to actors being replaced with computer generated people however is utterly comical and ironically, based around the destruction of humanity by ghost-like aliens who can literally pull the life-essence from people, the last surviving humans living in closed-off cities, it was like many videogames used to promote new graphics first than plot that's dated greatly as technology improved. Now it's as dated as a work like A.LI.CE; whilst it's still technically superior than many anime that use three-dimensional designs, its shown its age compared to how this computer animation would greatly improve over the decade in large budget cinema, and without a distinct look that wouldn't have aged it shows cracks in the sheen. You can see how few actual characters and environments there are, even a massively expensive and bold project like this limited by the practicalities of the technology, able to make realistic looking characters but not able to be ridiculously expansive in the mythology of its world. Baring the main cast, you mostly have soldiers who wear the same masks or faceless civilians, whilst locations are wasteland, an empty wasteland city and corridors only. Exactly like Galerians: Rion but on a significantly bigger budget, to fill in more detail would've cost prohibitive and more time consuming than it already would've been.
The area which hasn't aged, and is the main draw now, is the non-human entities which populate the film; non-human characters are less problematic in animation, and not surprisingly for a work based on Final Fantasy, they're inventive from malformed humanoid grunts, flying snake dragons and strange monolithic entities with tendrils and spiders' legs straight from HP Lovecraft fan art. The bright idea to make the aliens orange and the life-force of Earth blue, the later to be collected by the heroes as a final way to end the alien threat, also helps in preventing the grey and golden brown post-apocalyptic environments from becoming drab, adding some aesthetic distinction to the proceedings. Particularly now when, for the hard work on them, the human cast shown the limits of the time badly now, these designs make up for the beginnings of trying to create realistic human beings onscreen. A lot of lavish care was put on the female lead Aki with her freckled, meek look but the rest of the cast particularly the males are as generic as you can get in this day and age. The worst offender, for example, being the main villain General Hein with permanently sinister brow line, frozen in maliciousness in his desire to use his giant space laser on the aliens by any means necessary and signposted as bad from the facial deformity before you recognise James Wood is voicing him.
As for the plot, this is where the film was ultimately doomed. One could immediately go to the mythology and blame it as esoteric gobbledegook - that the heroes, including the heroine and soldiers lead by an old flame, need to tap into the life-force of Gaea, Earth as a living entity, found in anything from plants to soldiers' bio-battery packs, to protect themselves from what are actual alien ghosts with no consciousness of their violence, restless and destructive - but that's the interesting part of the film that's barely dealt with. These parts are the clear influence of this being a part-Japanese production as this is the type of storytelling you find in many anime - like the failed, but admirable, attempt to make Hein and his scowling frown a more complicated character, with a moral reason behind his malice, these are admirable attempts at bringing greyness and a more interesting depth even for an action sci-fi film. The problem I'd squarely blame on the US side of the co-production, adapting the film for a Western audience. As much as a film from Japan could be just as terrible as one from the US if the script is poor, the problem exactly is an irksome tendency prevalent in American cinema, one still plaguing current blockbusters, where there's a common and over repeated through line for the plot, the repetition of the hero's journey plot with the same character archetypes and, worse, a stagnated and marketed version of the phrase "believing in yourself" rather than letting the viewers think this for themselves. When I now spot these habits, I have a Pavlovian reaction suspecting a film's going to immediately collapse in quality even after the first ten minutes.
The interesting ideas that the film had eventually become complicit in its failure, making the obsession with Gaea theory and life force padding on the rotten structure. The characters are so generic and provided with such bad dialogue that, considering the calibre of some of the voice actors for the English dub, it becomes worse. Steve Buscemi has made a name for himself, as well as being a great character actor, for being the comedic sidekick too, the one here without any decent jokes. Ving Rhames is stuck in the background, James Wood is the aforementioned villain only defined for most of his screen time by a menacing brow, and inexplicably its Alec Baldwin who's the romantic love interest, as bland as white bread military captain Aki loves, when he should have literal brass balls in his hand as he does in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992). Slight desperation can even be found in the tough female solder (clearly copying Pvt. Vasquez from Aliens (1986) without the charisma or anything to differentiate that archetype from this version. Probably the worst thing is that, given a leading voice role for something she immediately wanted to make, Ming-Na Wen as Aki Ross, in a curious career that includes The Joy Luck Club (1993) to playing Chung-Li in Street Fighter (1994) to Mulan (1998) and voice acting, is stuck with a film around her that lets down the chance to get centre stage.
I had hoped to write about a folly, possibly one with virtues to redeem it or at least memorable as a box office bomb and in context of all the other three dimensional anime that faded into obscurity because of it. What I've ended up with however is a casebook example of the many flaws with English language plot writing for mainstream films. This is not like a Battlefield Earth (2000) in collapsing spectacularly, or in context of anime a compelling example of ambition crashing and burning at the box office like Odin: Photon Space Starlight (1985), but a bland, lifeless movie that has thankfully disappeared into obscurity baring its innovation in CGI. I sadly couldn't come to this as a fan of the original games, haven't never played a whole of one, but as a videogame adaptation, as tentative a one as possible, this is the sort of thing that'd crush a fan's heart if they went to see it on its original cinema release. In general it would've been a worse sensation for a devoted fan as, with the exception of Final Fantasy: Advent Children (2005), which was a direct sequel to one of the most loved games of the series, the anime adaptations of Final Fantasy have been infamous for their lack of quality. The Spirits Within would probably be the most painful to sit through, with those other adaptations all possible to cover depending on their accessibility to me, due to the expectation and budget behind it, collapsing like many videogame adaptations have. It ends with a shot of a valley with a dreary, Lord of the Rings-light ballad, one that finishes it appropriately with a deathly wheezing.