Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) movie poster

(2001) Hironobu Sakaguchi, Moto Sakakibara

This film is all about photorealistic animation. Marketed as the first film to have totally digital actors (a real misnomer, but there you go), the naturalism of the digital characters is supposed to be so stunning that you “believe.”

And in many ways the photorealism is amazing.

There are definitely shots, if not scenes, that once involved in the narrative, it is easy to forget that the image that you are looking at is totally digital and that the charactes were designed on computers, rather the acted on a soundstage and photographed.

But this, in and of itself, would be a moderately cheap thrill.

I have often noted that “special effects”, particularly digital effects, tend to look dated very quickly. Almost all of their power resides in the initial view, when they are first released, and the “effect” is new. Because digital effects become cheaper and more accessible, these same effects get proliferated in other films (maybe less effectively, but very prevalently) as well as on television, in things as pedestrian and oft-repeated as commercials. The power of their ability to “wow” an audience becomes neutralized and technological advances become commonplace.

Final Fantasy opens up with a great deal of promise.

The lead character is introduced in a dream sequence and is not elucidated through the first piece of action, a search for a lone flower in a deserted post-apocalyptic New York City while hunted by faceless military folk and spectral monsters. It called to mind a more detatched narrative style and character development in which less is known and more must be inferred. A colder style of storytelling, that was more common in some 70’s and 80’s science fiction, maybe really left over from the French New Wave.

Ironically, right after this sequence, it becomes clear that this is by no means the intention of this film to connect its unique visual style to its narrative style, to try and give more separation between character and audience. It does quite the opposite. It turns out that all of the faceless “police” were actually the main set of characters, stock stereotypes really, though voice acted by good actors like Steve Buschemi, Ving Rhames, James Woods, and Donald Sutherland, of all people. The idea is far from the one that initially jumped to my mind about the “coolness” of the narrative, the film wants to create the same types of characters that we, as and audience, are very used to in contemporary science fiction films. It wants to prove, I guess, that the digital characters can be “just like” flesh and blood actors.

This is probably the big weakness of the film. These types of stock characters could easily be played by flesh and blood actors (they are, after all, voiced by them). But this uninteresting character development is as generic as the next film and really plays against the unique qualities available to a film with such striking visual potential. The narrative, too, is essentially pretty standard Hollywood style. The whole thing becomes more and more about the ability to have done this film in digital, looking as photorealistic as possible.

Added irony to this is that in a film like The Mummy Returns (discussed above), human actors play cliche characters with stilted dialog. And even in those films, the action is almost entirely digital. In those films, not only do some “creatures” have to be acted out digitally, but landscapes and sets must also “mesh” with the “real” sets in which the live actors do their parts. Essentially, even in a live-action film, the big sequences are digital anyways, striving to be as photorealistic as possible while actually sharing screen time with actual photographed people and environments.

I guess the thing about this film then is that as a movie, a standard issue Hollywood Sci-fi movie from the early 2000’s, it’s pretty run of the mill, nothing to write home about. Better than some, but not especially interesting and definitely not profound.

It’s the potential that is squandered. The visual sense of this film is stunning at times, and I felt that within this style something is lurking that is quite unlike anything that has come before, or at least to this degree.

On a totally separate note, I liked the idea of ghosts from outer space, a notion, I guess that is echoed in Ghosts of Mars as well, but to a less interesting degree.

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