Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is a movie that retains the simultaneously impressive-yet-undesirable crown of 'most expensive computer-animated science-fiction film of all time'. This 2001 production was an ambitious one: the first to ever attempt to create a cast of photorealistic, computer-animated humans that would comprise the entire cast of the film. In addition to the challenge of creating these computer-animated characters and the inflationary effect it had on the film's budget, director Hironobu Sakaguchi had the unenviable task of making the film gel well with the veterans of the Final Fantasy video game series. The question is: did he succeed?
Before the question of whether the director's efforts were a success with the film, let's take a look at the plot. The Spirits Within whisks us out of the humdrum reality of the present and drops us in the time period surrounding the year 2065. This is a purportedly a time when menacing aliens are all too present on the planet and humans live under the protection of energy shields.
The heroine of the film is Dr. Aki Ross, a character whose mere presence on screen is a surreal one, not least because of the technology behind the computer animation that makes the characters' movements seem quite realistic, yet occasionally enter into Uncanny Valley territory (this seems to be the fate of many CGI productions, even modern ones such as The Polar Express). The story gets underway and heads in the direction of Aki and a collective of human warriors (known as Deep Eyes) battling it out against the aliens to protect the human survivors of a catastrophic alien invasion. The film then revolves around the safety of areas that are protected by the energy shields, and the events which take place then humans have to venture outside the relative safety of them.
For many, the idea that this fictional earth can be saved by Aki's idea of utilising the earth's 'spirit waves' against the aliens may be a little too close to new-age woo woo for comfort. Indeed the idea of the earth possessing a soul is one of pure science fiction, yet in spite of the logic-couched fans that this may alienate, it is well within the realms of possibility considering the events and general premise of Final Fantasy as a series.
This being a computer-animated production, much of the emotion that isn't being conveyed by the photorealistic faces and general movements of the characters comes through in the skills of the actors who voice them. Aki's colleagues include space-soldier Gray Edwards (voiced by Alec Baldwin), her mentor/teacher Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland), and Neil the pilot (Steve Buscemi). These famous voices of course aren't reason enough to see the film, but they do add a certain level of gravitas to the production, as well as ensuring that the vocals are executed professionally and by actors with a great deal of experience in their field.
Breathtaking in Parts
Very few people will be entering into The Spirits Within to admire the scintillating storyline, however. This movie's essence (to use the fantasy-steeped terminology of the film itself) goes deeper than plot progression, its character development (of which there is very little), or its tie-ins with the video games (again, there is very little of this).
In fact, the plot seems to be a mere vehicle to showcase the true (an arguable the only) true brilliance of the production: the visuals. A $137 million budget buys you a beautiful-looking production apparently, with fantastical landscapes and at times breathtaking scenes looking down on the earth and one memorable shot of Aki standing on a shimmering lake. Though the effects are noticeably dated now, for 2001 they were quite impressive.
In the end, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was a box-office failure however, owing to its colossal $137 million compared to the mere $87 million it managed to recuperate. The film was also met with mixed reception from die-hard Final Fantasy fans. Nonetheless, its true legacy won't be its character exploration or its portrayal of the Deep Eyes. This film will instead be remembered for pushing the boundaries of photorealism at the time, as well as its frequent scenes of computer-animated beauty when portraying its characters and their environment."