Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (Hironobu Sakaguchi and Moto Sakakibara, 2001)
[originally posted 4Feb2002]
Every review of this movie I ever read says roughly the same thing: “the animation in this movie will astound you. If you’re not impressed by animation, though, you might as well ignore it, because there’s nothing backing it up.” I hate to say it, but despite animation that is, truly, fantastic, and a cast that redefines “high-powered” in an animated film, those reviews are dead on, and you won’t read anything new here.
The setting is Earth in 2065. Thirty-four years previous, a large meteorite crashed into the Earth’s surface (forget, for the moment, that the last time a chunk of rock this big crashed into the Earth’s surface, the dinosaurs were wiped out), bringing with it an alien race called the Phantoms. The Phantoms are very invisible, very nasty, and extremely pissed off, and their main mission on Earth seems to be to kill humans as quickly and efficiently as possible. What’s left of humanity is holed up in a large, ultra-secure dome in New York City. Most humans are simply concerned with killing Phantoms in the same way Phantoms kill humans, but two scientists, Aki (Ming-Na, recently of Mulan) and Sid (Donald Sutherland), are convinced that conventional weapons are not the way to go here; they’re of the belief that a series of eight spirits, when combined correctly and beamed out over the earth, will act towards the Phantoms as matter acts to anti-matter, the two will cancel each other out, and humans will be free to recolonize their own planet. The head of the faction who believes guns ARE the way to go is General Hyde (James Woods), who assigns a team of stormtroopers to guard Aki and Sid in their quest to find the eight spirits (the film opens with Aki going out into the undomed part of New York to get the sixth one). The subtext, of course, is that the guards are also monitors. The guards ain’t no slouches either, voicewise. Keith David, Peri Gilpin, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Buscemi all lend their vocal talents to these parts. That’s a lot of talent in that there paragraph, Vern. It’s also more than enough meat, handled correctly, to come up with a pretty bang-up story with lots of mysticism AND lots of things blowing up. How cool is that?
Not too cool at all, unfortunately. The plot’s about as wooden as it could possibly be, and while the voice acting is exceptional in its understatement for an animated film (where one expects, and probably should expect, overacting; witness the successes of Monsters Inc. and Shrek the same year of Final Fantasy’s release), it more often than not comes off as wooden and unemotional. Whether it’s the voice acting, Squaresoft’s continuing inability to animate faces correctly, or a combination of the above remains debatable.
The inability to animate faces, though (they’re just too smooth, pure and simple), is Square’s only shortcoming where the animation is concerned. There were two or three points during the film where I really did think I was watching a live-action movie. The Spirits Within, if nothing else, will be remembered for pushing the envelope orders of magnitude farther than any film before it for realistic animation. While that animation itself is probably a good enough reason to give this thing a ninety-nine cent rental, more than anything it underscores the idea that, if the plot had been carried off with the same flair as the animation, The Spirits Within would have achieved “instant classic” status faster than you can say anime. And that’s the biggest disappointment the film offers. **