Thanks to some early entries in the field, video game movies aren’t appreciated. Super Mario Bros. is one of the big offenders, having been a poor adaptation of the source material. Mortal Kombat was the exception when it came out in 1995, but video game adaptations were still done through licensing arrangements with a studio, placing how the game appears completely out of the original publisher’s hands. In 2001, a game publisher decided to try its hand at making their own film adaptation
Square had great success with its Final Fantasy line of video games. Created by Hironobu Sakaguchi in 1987, the first Final Fantasy was available on the Nintendo Entertainment System and localized for the US in 1990. The next two installments of the game, FFII in 1988 and FFIII in 1990, were released only in Japan. The two games weren’t so much sequels as new stories exploring the same themes as the first, setting a pattern for the rest of the series. When FFIV came out in 1991, it was for the Super Nintendo and released in the US as FFII. FFV was a Japan-only release in 1992 and had a sequel, Final Fantasy: Legend of the Cryptids. FFVI came out in 1994 with an American release as FFIII.
Up to this point, the series was two-dimensional sprites; the draw was the story-telling with the game play. In 1997, with the introduction of the PlayStation, FFVII moved to three-dimensional characters and a more modern setting. The game also retained its numbering in the American release. Square followed up with FFVIII in 1999, turning the setting into more of a planetary romance with a mix of magic and technology with a hint that the world had avanced since the end of FFVII. FFIX rounds out the original PlayStation console games, coming out in 2001 and moving the setting back to fantasy. As newer consoles came out, Square and, after 2003, Square-Enix brought out more FF sequels, covering everything from traditional consoles to Windows to mobile gaming.
While each entry in the Final Fantasy series is a standalone adventure, there are themes that return every game. Young heroes coming together despite tragedies, the difficulty of the heroes working together, an ancient evil returning, rebellion against a government. Magic is based on elements, both the traditional Japanese and Western, and must be balanced within itself and with nature. Technology isn’t necessarily evil, but neither is it necessarily good; it, too, must balance with nature. There are recurring characters, of a sort. Cid, who first appeared in FFII acts as a mentor to the main character and may or may not be part of the party depending on the entry. Biggs and Wedge, named after characters in Star Wars, have appeared in games starting with FFV and are typically used as comic relief.
As the company worked on getting FFVII, FFVIII, and FFIX published, Square set up a division, Square Pictures, to release films based on their games. The first and, ultimately, only movie created was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Released in 2001 with Sakaguchi and Motonori Sakakibara directing, The Spirits Within was an ambitious project, with the film being completely computer animated. The ambition came with a high price tag; computers of the time, Penium IIIs running at 933MHz – were being pushed to their limits rendering the film’s frames.
In The Spirits Within, the Earth of 2065 has been overrun by alien creatures known as Phantoms that can pull a person’s soul out of their body, killing them. Even a touch leads to an infection that is fatal if not cured in time. Humanity is isolated into barrier cities protected by an energy field. People who leave the city must go through decontamination to ensure no Phantom infection has occurred.
All is not loss yet, though. Doctor Aki Ross, voiced by Ming-Na Wen, and Doctor Sid, voiced by Donald Sutherland, discover of a way to defeat the Phantoms. If the eight signature spirits can be found and combined, the Phantoms can be pushed off Earth. During a trip to the ruins of New York City to gather the sixth signature spirit, Aki is stalked by Phantoms, only to be rescued by her former boyfriend, Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin) and his squad, the Deep Eyes – Ryan Whittaker (Ving Rhames), Neil Fleming (Steve Buscemi), and Jane Produfoot (Peri Gilpin).
On return to the barrier city, Aki finds out that General Hein (James Woods) has decided that the best way to destroy the Phantoms infecting the Earth is to turn the Zeus cannon, an orbital laser, on them. To protect the Earth and its Gaia spirit, Aki reveals that not only is she infected, the spirit signatures she’s collected are keeping the infection at bay.
The seventh signature is found, though Aki’s infection worsens. She falls into a coma and, while unconscious, dreams of how the Phantoms first arrived on Earth. Aki is brought out of her coma by Sid who uses the seventh signature to control the infection.
Hein, believing that Aki is under control of the Phantoms, decides that his plan is still the correct one. He lowers the energy field of the barrier city, intending to let a few Phantoms in. Legions swarm the city, causing havok. Hein escapes to the Zeus space station. Gray, the only member of Deep Eyes to escape alive, joins Aki and Sid on their space ship to find the eight signature.
It becomes a race against time. Hein opens fire with the Zeus cannon while Aki and Gray seek out the eighth signature spirit. One of Hein’s shots kills the spirit, but Aki has a vision of the Gaia of the Phantoms’ home world. The infection within her becomes the eight signature spirit and combines with the other seven. To transmit the completed spirit to the alien Gaia, Gray sacrifices himself. On the Zeus station, Hein orders the cannon into overload, ignoring warnings from techs and computers. The cannon overloads, destroying the station and killing all aboard. The alien Gaia and the Phantoms leave Earth, returning home.
Several of the recurring FF elements can be seen in the above. There’s the young heroes with some issues between each other. Despite the different spelling, Doctor Sid is still the wise mentor to the lead character, Aki. The nature of spirits returns, and how introducing an alien spirit can cause problems. The biggest change is that The Spirits Within is science fiction with some fantasy elements, a huge change from FFVII, FFVIII, and FFIX, the three most recent games prior to the movie’s release. Also unlike the games released, The Spirits Within was set on Earth.
The film was a commercial failure. Part of the problem was the sheer cost of production. The budget for the movie was US$137 million, higher than 1999’s Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace at $115 million. Most of the cost was in the animation, from the hardware to the sheer amount of time animators needed to put the film together. Other problems existed. As mentioned above, video game adaptations were known to be poor. The characters, while rendered to be as realistic as possible, fell into the uncanny valley. There was something just off enough to make the characters seem less than real. And, for a video game movie, there wasn’t much action. The Final Fantasy series of games did offer more than just pure action, adding characterization, investigation, and exploration, but the draw of video games is the action. Audiences found the story to be slower than expected. Because of the loss, Square Pictures closed shop and the merger between Square and Enix was delayed.
Artistically, the film was lush. Backgrounds were detailed. Characters had blemishes. The ruined Earth was heartbreaking to see. The Phantoms provided a harsh alien light to the world. Perhaps the movie could have been better off as another entry in the FF line of games, allowing players to immerse themselves into it as Aki, Gray, and the Deep Eyes.
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within wasn’t quite what Final Fantasy fans were expecting, but it did touch upon similar themes as the games had. The failings of the movie are technical. As an adaptation, it is a worthy entry in the Final Fantasy line up and breaks the video game adaptation curse.