Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) Movie Review

I will first grant you that I find the main premise behind Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within to be just a little silly, with its focus on the Earth as a “living being” with a spirit and other such New Age nonsense. Then again, what did you expect going into a movie called Final Fantasy? A dissertation on human psychosis? Final Fantasy is the second popular video game turned movie in 2001 next to Tomb Raider, and both have a dedicated fan base that is required to approve of the adaptation in order to give the movie repeat viewings (re: box office success). This occurred with Angelina Jolie’s Raider (something I suspect had more to do with her artificial breasts than the actual quality of the movie), but it didn’t happen with Final Fantasy.

Final Fantasy opens with Doctor Aki Ross (voiced by Ming-Na) onboard a ship orbiting the Earth. We learn through narration that the Earth is infested with creatures called “phantoms” that looks like bipedal squids (some the size of man, others as big as a skyscraper) that are composed of bright red and orange energy. The phantoms kill humans by simple touch, literally stealing their life force (or life energy) and are invisible to the human eye unless shot with a weapon that makes them visible.

Aki Ross is on a mission to collect 8 objects that are infused with “spirits” of the Earth, and by combining all 8 she and her mentor, Doctor Sid (Donald Sutherland), believes they can “reverse” the phantom energies into positive energies, thereby saving the Earth and humankind. Of course not everyone believes in this New Age stuff, and one of the nonbelievers is General Hein (James Woods), who would rather blow the phantoms all to hell and has constructed a weapon in space called the Zeus cannon to do it. Can Aki and Sid save the Earth in time from Hein’s insane need for revenge? Will Captain Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin) get some action from Aki? And will Aki’s hair continue to move for no apparent reason?

I like Final Fantasy. Let’s get that out of the way first. Is the animated film’s “Earth as spiritual living being” idea any crazier than the idea of an alien that bursts out of a person’s chest after planting eggs in them? No, of course not. You go into a science fiction movie prepared to swallow the idea of flying ships that shoots lasers at each other. And you go into Final Fantasy expecting all kinds of wacky explanations about living energy, life forces, life energy, and spirits. I mean, folks, just consider the name of the movie!

Final Fantasy, as many people know, uses computer animation exclusively. And the result is, in a word, breathtaking. The scenery crackles with life and so do the characters. As hard as it is to believe, the animated characters in Final Fantasy are so lifelike that on more than one occasion I found myself thinking they were actual human actors! The only real moments when the animated characters come across as what they are (computer generated images) are when they stand still and their arms sort of, well, just hangs there. There are scenes with Gray and Aki that are just so damn lifelike I felt a shiver run up my spine. And ladies and gentlemen, this is only the beginning. Can you imagine what they can do in 5, or 10, or 20 years from now? I wait with bated breath.

Like a lot of animation nowadays, Final Fantasy boasts a great line-up of actors providing voices. Ming-Na (TV’s “ER”) provides the voice of leading lady Aki, and she does all right, but there are some awkward moments mostly during narration. Alec Baldwin (Gray) does the tough guy soldier very well, and his character animation sometimes looks like Baldwin’s real-life younger brother, William. Rounding out Gray’s squad of commandos are: the always reliable Steve Buscemi as Neil, the smart-aleck genius; Peri Gilpin as Jane, the tough gun-toting chick; and Ving Rhames as Ryan, the token black character. (Hey, even animations must have token black characters!) As Hein, the conniving General, James Woods does what he can with a grossly underdeveloped character. Actually, the animation character that looks most lifelike is the Sid character voiced by Donald Sutherland. God did he look real!

For sci-fi buffs, a lot of the action in Final Fantasy may look familiar. Gray’s squad and much of Final Fantasy’s beginning and middle looks like an animated version of James Cameron’s Aliens, complete with armored Marines (in this case, military commandos) toting big guns that fires large bursts of pulse energy. The movie also excels in character and vehicle designs. The looks of the phantoms are eerie, especially watching them literally seep through the walls behind you. The ships, hovercrafts, and other vehicles in the movie also harkens back to Cameron’s Aliens, with the rough-and-tumble look and large wheels. And also like Aliens, Final Fantasy has a long sequence where the phantoms (aliens) finally penetrate a city (building) and go on a rampage, chasing our heroes through buildings (long corridors) and finally to a ship hangar, where many of the characters die heroically to allow the others to escape.

Despite my lack of interest in the “Earth as Gaia, a spiritual being” premise, I did like the Gaia vs. Zeus allegory. The ancient Greeks first conceived of Gaia as the creator of all living things (re: the Earth) and Gaia herself gives birth to various Gods, one of which is Zeus, the Greek God of the Sky, or Sky God. The cannon in Final Fantasy orbits the Earth (re: in the sky) and fires large bursts of energy from the sky at the land (lightning from the sky, get it?). Greek myths are filled with stories about children who commit patricide, something Freud would have a field day with.

The year 2002 saw the creation of a new “Best Animation” category at the Academy Awards, but in perhaps the most blatant miscarriage of justice, Final Fantasy was overlooked. This just goes to show you that the failure of Final Fantasy at the box office means more to these supposedly “informed” Academy voters than the actual quality of the movies they’re nominating. True, Shrek and others were deserving, but to leave out Final Fantasy rings of stupidity and nearsightedness on the part of the voters.

Final Fantasy is a monumental piece of filmmaking and it’s a shame it hasn’t gotten the credit and the success that it deserves. Like all things that are before their time, it will take a new generation to truly appreciate something so ground-breaking as Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.

Hironobu Sakaguchi, Moto Sakakibara (director) / Hironobu Sakaguchi, Al Reinert, Jeff Vintar, Jack Fletcher (screenplay)
CAST: Ming-Na …. Doctor Aki Ross
Alec Baldwin …. Captain Gray Edwards
Ving Rhames …. Ryan
Steve Buscemi …. Neil
Peri Gilpin …. Jane
Donald Sutherland …. Doctor Sid
James Woods …. General Hein

Buy Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within on DVD