Tuesday, 19 July 2011

100 days, 100 films; Day 33 - Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

#68 - Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within:

Uh-huh, yep that’s right. I’m a Final Fantasy fan so of course I was gonna put their only movie on the list. I have seen Advent Children but that was more of a service to the fans of FF7 and an experiment on how many times they can violate the laws of physics in the space of 90 minutes. I don’t know if there have been any other movies, I know there was a couple of Anime projects but anyway this was definitely the series’ first and so far only big theatrical film. Naturally with such a passionate (that’s the only nice way of putting it really) fanbase the opinions are going to be pretty divided. Let’s take a look shall we...

It’s actually set on Earth, the first Final Fantasy title to do so, in the year 2065 which is now a post-apocalyptic state. Years ago a meteor crashed into the Earth carrying with it a breed of aliens that the humans called “Phantoms” because they were largely invisible and killed people by draining their spirits. Just one touch from a Phantom is infectious and has to be treated immediately. Our main character is a scientist Dr Aki Ross who is on a mission to combat the phantoms by collecting eight compatible spirits in the hopes of creating a spirit wave that will cancel the Phantoms out. I’m probably not doing a good job of explaining it but the film explains it much better than I can. Of course she’s joined by a squad called the Deep Eyes and they’re all under the watchful eye of the trigger happy General Hein who wants to fire a big cannon into the Phantoms’ nest despite the risk that it might injure the Earth’s Gaia.

I remember once when I was a lot younger and I wondered if there was an animated film or TV show where the animation itself was realistic. Granted at the time I was thinking about hand-drawn animation and the closest thing I could come to was Sleeping Beauty but I was pretty excited when I was watching this because, I’ll hold my hands up and admit it, I wasn’t sure if it was live action or CGI when I was watching. Of course that seems ridiculous now when anyone can recognise the voices of most of the characters and clue in they look nothing like the actors portraying them, as well as looking up the film on the internet and reading all about the digital rendering. Aki herself is one of the most groundbreaking achievements in animation with her creators bragging that each of her 60,000 hairs was individually animated to make her look all the more realistic. They scooted around this by having the rest of the characters be short haired and the only other major female character having hers tied up in a ponytail. Then there’s all the other stuff like the backgrounds and the lighting effects. Remember at this time the games had only gone as far as Final Fantasy VIII and IX was released shortly before this film so the graphics in this film surpass those two games and are on-par with most of the CGI cutscenes in Final Fantasy X. I do love the way they imagined the Earth after the end, with the population hiding in barrier cities and the nice contrast between the Phantoms. Whenever they appear, their environment always contrasts against them. For example when they first appear in the ruins of New York, the background is grey and filled with blues and other cool colours while the Phantoms are an eerie red. Later on when they get into the city, they’re a big fiery orange making them some of the creepiest looking movie monsters I’ve ever seen.

Once again I find myself reviewing a team of voice-actors only I wasn’t sure they were voice actors on my very first viewing. I was only 11 so you can forgive me and I did catch on when I watched the special features on the DVD. Our heroine is voiced by Ming-Na who is probably more familiar as a certain Ancient Chinese girl who stole her father’s armour and joined the army. I think Ming-Na and Aki go hand in hand and if Aki had been featured in more movies, then Ming would be the only person to voice her. She has a fascinating voice and is perfect for a scientist. Our other scientist is Donald Sutherland playing the obligatory Sid character in the series. I don’t know if he’s ever played a scientist before but he was one of the better characters in this film. As our big bad general it’s James Woods who I’ll admit, I didn’t really take to. Maybe because the character was a little one-dimensional or because I’m just too used to him as Hades, but I warmed to him eventually. Our Deep Eyes squad is made up of Alec Baldwin, Ving Rhames, Peri Gilpin and Steve Buscemi. And only Ving Rhames’s character actually resembles his actor, for anyone who cares. I enjoyed their dialogue, especially the banter between Neil and Jane which is almost reminiscent of Hudson and Vasquez from Aliens, which this film does have a few shout-outs to. As a small note, FF fans will recognise another voice in there as Matt McKenzie who plays Auron in Final Fantasy X has a sizable role as Major Elliott. It’s also interesting to think that him, James Woods and Ming-Na would later all be reunited for Kingdom Hearts II.

Because I don’t like to end my entries with negativity I’ll address the film’s flaws here because it does have a few; the characters are almost cookie-cutter stock characters from other films such as the hard nosed general, the scientist who gets ridiculed despite being right and the captain who bucks authority. That’s likely what the critics meant when they labelled the film as “clichéd”, and of course the part where General Hein actually says “What have I done?” is incredibly face-palm worthy. But aside from that, there is a lot of impressive story telling going on in this film as the setting and plot itself is very original and the narrative is actually pretty deep, which probably alienated a few viewers who just wanted to see a fun sci-fi action film. Some hardcore FF fans were obviously pissed that this film wasn’t an adaptation of one of the games but really when you think about it, none of the games themselves have any connection to one another (apart from the specific sequels of course) but they do all share the same themes and such, which this film also has. You can also see a few more nods to the series such as the fact that the Deep Eyes only have four of their number, with the majority of games having only four party members allowed in battle and the Phantoms are designed specifically after the game’s random enemy battles – they’re invisible and they appear out of nowhere forcing you to either fight them or flee. The film even has a cool airship called the Black Boa.

My favourite scene is probably when Aki and the Deep Eyes go hunting for the seventh spirit out in the wasteland of an old battle. It’s probably that scene that feels most like a proper scene from a Final Fantasy game. I can’t really describe it in detail but it just seems to capture the essence of the game in that little scene; and that’s from the hunting to the battle and the escaping. That’s probably the best way they could have recreated a Final Fantasy battle without violating the laws of physics like Advent Children did (not that there’s anything wrong with Rule of Cool). There’s a nice little touch with an eagle that flies over the scene, one of the only survivors from the Phantom attack and Aki remarks that it’s just waiting for life to return. I also love the scenes done in zero gravity even if there aren’t that many of them, mostly for the animation (and yes Aki’s hair). The ending sequence is also beautiful to watch but don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you.

So I’m clocking another day in this challenge and acknowledging myself as a Final Fantasy fan who enjoyed the only game adaptation. I’m still holding out for a movie of the best game in the series – Final Fantasy IX of course. It’s a shame this film bombed (it did make $85 million but that was severely under budget) as it could have been revolutionary for Square pictures, but we will always have this nice little gem. Until next time and don’t forget to follow me on Twitter.

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