When Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within debuted in theaters in 2001, for fans of video games and Japanese media it felt like a validation of what they held dear: an A-list, big-budget adaptation (sort of) of a well-known property in their circles. And a technological groundbreaker on top of that: the first fully photorealistic CGI feature film. But the movie itself landed with a resonant thud. Mainstream audiences were perplexed by its uneasy mix of hard SF and spiritual musings; critics mostly held their noses; fans of the Final Fantasy franchise felt like the whole project had only been assigned the name as a quick-and-dirty way to associate it with its creative team.

But a few people, like Roger Ebert, defended the movie as a milestone in filmmaking technology that enabled new kinds of stories to be told, even if this particular story wasn't up to total snuff. On watching FF:TSW again, twenty years later, I see all the flaws bigger than ever, but also the ambition and vision. I also see it as the first major step towards how animation and live action would become less polar opposites, and more elements that could be alchemically blended.

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© 2001 Final Fantasy Film Partners
Aki Ross and her mentor Dr. Sid unravel the mysteries of the Phantoms.

Returning a dead world to life

No two Final Fantasy projects are exactly alike, but they all have common elements or threads, chiefly that of the life force as a fundamental power of the universe. Some FFs have more of an SF flavor than others, but fantasy (as per the title) remains the predominant mode. FF:TSW goes full-tilt into SF, at least at first. It's set in the 2060s, after a catastrophe of some kind has devastated most of the earth and left it lifeless. What few humans remain huddle in domed cities, hiding from the "Phantoms", wraithlike beings that suck the lifeforce out of human beings. Among the survivors are scientists searching for a way to dispel the Phantom infestation and restore the world.

Dr. Aki Ross (Ming-Na) and her senior, Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) believe they have the answer. Gather eight "spirits", each found in different lifeforms scattered far and wide, and the resulting energy can destroy the Phantoms. The sixth of these, she finds when (illegally) spelunking through what's left of New York City, right before a Phantom corners her. She's saved by the soldiers of the "Deep Eyes" team, led by Captain Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin), who are peeved that they've risked their leather necks so she can scoop up some plant. It doesn't help that Ross and Edwards were once romantically involved, and now bristle at each other's presences.

Ross and Sid have at best qualified support for their work from the powers that be. The ambitious and hissable General Hein (James Woods) pooh-poohs the scientists and their theories about life forces; he would rather use an orbital laser cannon to obliterate the Phantoms, even when there's no evidence that will work. When Ross reveals she has a Phantom infection held at bay with the collected spirits, it's meant to give weight to their plan, but it ends up being more ammo for Hein to use to get his way when Ross's condition worsens. Then Hein stages a coup by rendering the city defenseless to Phantom attack, forcing Aki, Edwards, Sid, and the other Deep Eyes members to find a way to unite the remaining spirits before either Hein or the Phantoms devastate everything. For only Aki and Edwards now know that what they face is not an alien invasion, but the laments of the restless dead.

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© 2001 Final Fantasy Film Partners
Answers come in dreams.

A matter of belief

Fusing SF and fantasy elements is largely a matter of tone and judiciousness. It's not that those two things can't dance together, but they have to tread carefully. With FF:TSW, the mix is used to show how people of science, like Aki and Sid, have difficulty in bringing understandings to the rest of the world that can sound like mysticism, or maybe better to say mystification. What's at the outer edge of science always looks like fantasy, until the evidence comes in to support it, and in this case they do have the evidence on their side. Some of that evidence is highly subjective (e.g., Aki's prophetic dreams, later shared by Edwards). But what's the bigger obstacle is how they also believe, naïvely, that a good explanation will win over those who resist — that people like Hein refuse to believe only because they are misinformed, and not because the way they see themselves is at stark odds with the new worldview being presented. (There is a telling scene about the fragility of Hein's spirit where after his botched coup he contemplates suicide.)

Unfortunately, the murkier parts of the story make it hard to appreciate these ideas. The larger plot — of Aki's conflicts with Hein and her race against time to save the earth before he destroys it — has its dramatic energy sapped by the time spent on logical details of how the spirits work. They work in the context of a game, perhaps, where you have more time to linger over them between presses of the X, but not in a movie with a fixed runtime and playback speed, pause buttons notwithstanding. That said, the climax they work towards is moving and beautiful; it's a lot of work getting there, but it is absolutely worth it.

The making-of book that accompanied the film's release is a gorgeous bit of hagiography that avoids any mention of the struggle to complete the film, a good explanation for why its story is a muddle. The original screenplay was a mess; co-screenwriter Jeff Vintar begged for more time to do a proper rewrite and was given mere days. An original budget of some $70 million exploded to more than twice that, due to the costs of creating the custom Square Pictures render farm and the salaries of the animation crew over what turned into a four-year production stretch. And the film's failure scotched other plans: Aki's character design had been intended to be re-used as a kind of virtual actress for other productions, but that idea died along with the Square Pictures studio itself, and any other movies it might have produced.

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© 2001 Final Fantasy Film Partners
General Hein's obsessive quest to protect the world, or rule it.

The beauty of the unreal

But then there's the look of the thing, a good two-thirds of why this movie is worth discussing at all, even now. It almost goes without saying that twenty years of technological advancement have made the CGI of FF:TSW look almost quaint. Compare, for instance, Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV, whose photorealism is orders of magnitude beyond this film (and has a more coherent story, too). But it's still eye-filling in just about every shot, especially when the animators blend hand-painted background imagery with the CGI. What also comes through is the painstaking attention to bringing to life Shūkō (Gundam) Murase's character designs despite the relatively primitive tech — the freckles in Ross's complexion, for instance, or the wave of her hair in zero-g.

On top of all that is the nuances in the animation itself, the sly little gestural asides, as when General Hein evinces mincing contempt for Ross's explanations, or in one moment when Sid explains something to Edwards and Ross nods knowingly at Edwards and tilts her head: See? He knows what he's talking about. Moments like that throughout the movie keep the animation from looking too mummified, although they can't completely offset that damned marionette-like stiffness that plagues photoreal CGI generally. (Even Blade Runner: Black Lotusreleased just this year, still has that janky look to it.)

Modern computer graphics can produce forensically realistic environments, but still have trouble with convincing-looking human beings. Maybe that's a hint that we shouldn't strive for forensic realism, but instead look at how to render the products of unfettered imagination, and make that the foundation on which to build new kinds of stories. That is the great lesson conferred on us by every hand-drawn animated project of ambition and vision (Mind Game, REDLINE, Arionetc.): Don't just reproduce what exists, give us something that can't exist but convince us it's real anyway. At its moment in time, FF:TSW came close to doing that, close enough to merit saving the pieces.

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© 2001 Final Fantasy Film Partners
A final stand against chaos.
Note: The products mentioned here were purchased by the reviewer with personal funds, or watched using the reviewer's personal streaming account. No compensation was provided by the creators or publishers for the sake of this review.

About the Author

Serdar Yegulalp (@GanrikiDotOrg) is Editor-in-Chief of Ganriki.org. He has written about anime professionally as the Anime Guide for Anime.About.com, and as a contributor to Advanced Media Network, but has also been exploring the subject on his own since 1998.