image credit: Sony Pictures Releasing

Movie Review – Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) ****

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is a story about post-apocalyptic Earth, which has been devastated by a seeming invasion of aliens called Phantoms. One touch from Phantoms removes the soul from humans. Aki Ross has been dreaming about the Phantoms and believes she can solve the invasion. It’s a straightforward story, mostly because the story isn’t the main focus of the movie.

The focus for this movie was technological revolution. This was the first CGI feature film intended to look photorealistic. While Dreamworks and Pixar were making more stylized kids’ movies, studio Square hoped to create digital actors whose performances would be comparable to living actors. Aki’s model in particular was intended for multiple movie projects. This never happened, aside from a single demo made with the Aki model to land the Final Flight of the Osiris project.

Square’s ambitions sank the studio: costs went out of control, movie audiences didn’t love the project, and The Spirits Within bombed. They never got to make another full length movie.

The Final Fantasy franchise has always been about creative discontent driving artists to reach for their ambitions. From the Wikipedia article: “Though often attributed to the company allegedly facing bankruptcy, Sakaguchi explained that the game was his personal last-ditch effort in the game industry and that its title, Final Fantasy, stemmed from his feelings at the time; had the game not sold well, he would have quit the business and gone back to college.”

Creator Sakaguchi threw everything he could scrape together at The Spirits Within, and you can tell. Compare it to other CGI from the year 2001. Fiona from Shrek is a great comparison in terms of hair and skin; you’ll notice the lighting and designs are much more stylistic. Pixar’s Monster’s Inc was a contemporary. Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius is contemporary too. The much-humbler and lower-budget Barbie and the Nutcracker also came from 2001 and is more representative of commercial CGI.

These movies are all wonderful in their ways, but The Spirits Within was on a level unto itself. Note the efforts toward naturalistic lighting and realistic movement. Nowadays it looks like a video game cut scene. It compares unfavorably to, say, Death Stranding’s cut scenes, and maybe Baldur’s Gate 3’s in-game rendering. Both of them look more modern in style and quality, but you’d expect that after twenty years. Twenty years! A studio managed to put out a movie that was almost twenty years ahead of what video games would later accomplish.

The Spirits Within took four years for its team to create, amounting to many many terabytes of footage, and what would now be a $200 million budget to achieve. It’s hard to comprehend the kind of machinery it took to create The Spirits Within. They were using Maya and RenderMan, whereas your laptop can spit out the BG3 footage with hardly a fan-spin to recognize the effort.

Back when this movie came out, I was thirteen-years-old. From ages fourteen through eighteen, I was doing 3D Computer Graphic Design classes at my high school, where I ultimately became a teacher’s assistant. We weren’t taught by anyone who knew anything about 3D. Our teacher did photography. The technology was just too new. But they equipped us with Lightwave, Maya-comparable software, and let us loose. I couldn’t possibly overstate the impact seeing The Spirits Within had on my nascent artistic development. I spent those four years trying to create the Phantoms (as well as the Gungan bubble cities from Star Wars). I absolutely obsessed over what Sakaguchi’s team accomplished.

And I wasn’t the only admirer. The motion capture process used for the models was so good, they brought the mocap guy over to Lord of the Rings to work on Gollum. Andy Serkis’s performance as Gollum is definitive; it spawned an entire profession of mocap artists within cinema.

I’ll note that Gollum was photorealistic enough to perform with human cast mates in photorealistic settings. At the time, we thought this would be the future of movies. What’s actually happened is that we mostly use human actors against CGI environments (although this example video also has CGI Stormtroopers). Technology has also since progressed to turn human performances into CGI-tuned simulacra, prominently used for things like de-aging or resurrecting dead actors.

The Spirits Within was a major stepping stone for all of this, though it has now mostly been forgotten.

That’s because the movie really works best as a tech demo. It never gets lost in its story and becomes unselfaware of itself as an historic CGI creation.

Lingering shots on Aki are clearly meant to give us opportunities to admire her vividly realized model. A lot of shots feel unnecessary, mostly because they’re showing us something that is impressive for the technology of the time. And then there are some odd moments where they seem to have edited in shots because they couldn’t afford to do a more expensive angle on the scene (hair was *so difficult*).

Loving work was put into Aki, but the other characters kinda blur together. Many are kept in full-body suits due to the limitations of rendering the complex multilayered look of human skin. The romantic hero, Gray, would be basically indistinguishable from the villain if not for their different costumes. The vehicles and CGI-rendered environments also have a certain sparse sterility that reminds me of the original Mass Effect. Many environments aren’t CGI at all, but matte paintings. These were all necessary sacrifices. But you can tell where the most effort was focused.

The screenplay suffered for this tech demo focus. The dialogue is stilted to the point where it sounds like the English track is a dub — but it’s actually an English original. Great actors do their best to work with it, but it’s b-movie dialogue at best. The story structure is okay. The concept is Studio Ghibli-esque without the detail, humanity, or wonder. Movies at the time had vastly better screenplays. This is somewhere Shrek absolutely trounced Spirits Within. And if you look at recent years of cinema, like the bangers of 1999, you can see how spoiled we were for amazing story.

The marketing also did a disservice to The Spirits Within. They spent a lot of time talking about the photorealism, when that was the goal, but not really achievable. It got a lot of people hung up on the uncanny valley effect. Honestly, I think this is where I first heard the term “uncanny valley.” Moviegoers were looking at extremely sophisticated CGI and told to receive it as film, and that just wasn’t going to work. And they really couldn’t resist sexualizing Aki Ross, who was the first nonexistent person to appear on Maxim’s Hot 100 list. The movie itself is not sexy. People were disappointed on a few axes.

It’s fair to say that The Spirits Within didn’t age well, but that would imply it was good in its time — most people didn’t think so. Roger Ebert appreciated it. I also defended it with the passion only a thirteen-year-old can muster. And while I was absolutely delighted to rewatch it (I still love! it! so! much!), my own thirteen-year-old offspring was deeply unimpressed. This kid regarded it as a bad old video game cut scene, or maybe a project one guy made on his computer on the weekends. And they laughed out loud at the dialogue.

I’m not sure I’d recommend The Spirits Within to anyone who doesn’t have a particular interest in CGI’s relationship with cinema throughout history, no matter how much I adore the movie. And I do. It’s a great piece of mostly forgotten history that has resonated throughout the decades since. A lot of what we love owes thanks to The Spirits Within for its technological stretch.

(image credit: Sony Pictures Releasing)

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