Film Friday - Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (Where dem Chocobos?)
The World of Final Fantasy is the Middle Earth of video gaming.
The realm is one of immense depth and rich history, peppered with fascinating characters and grand scale. And I know this having only played The One Game. Those of us who spent countless hours in this turn-based adventure knew that Hollywood would bring Chocobos to the silver screen one day.
But, frankly, we’re still waiting.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that Hollywood didn’t still try to throw the name “Final Fantasy” on a motion picture and pump the nerd community with hype that one of their favorite properties was getting the full length feature treatment. In 2001, that motion picture was FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN, a peculiar, photorealistic science fiction picture that didn’t seem to capture the world that the gaming community had come to love. To be fair, the film was directed by HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI, who is credited as creator of the FINAL FANTASY Games, so maybe he knows something that many of us didn’t——like how this sci-fi picture is supposed to equate to a silver screen adaptation of the world most known for stunning airships, enormous beasts, larger than life characters, and an overall sense of awe and wonder.
I don’t think I am the only fan who felt that FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN (FF:TSW, from here forward) failed to capture the core of the game, but fortunately, that doesn’t necessarily make for a bad movie.
As far as films go, FF:TSW is a bit of a mixed bag. Given the video game to silver screen adaptations that came before it, it's not bad. In fact, by most standards it's a completely serviceable science fiction motion picture from the early 2000's. Take that for what you will.
The movie is strong on visuals and theme, plus the film somehow seemed to overcome the uncanny valley and created a CGI protagonist that feels engaging rather than off-putting. Aki Ross may be a billion bytes of inorganic coding, but her plight is well-developed and integrated into the plot in a way that is internally coherent and in some ways cathartic. That’s a narrative success many motion pictures fail to achieve.
The mixed bag comes from the film’s remaining characters being little more than sci-fi cliches in fancy motion capture (for the time), and the movie’s failure to maintain appropriate pacing. The first issue is a little less painful than the latter, which is simply tragic. In fact, it’s doubly tragic. The film’s current 106 minute run-time feels much longer than that, in all the wrong ways. The film just doesn’t move how it should—overall, it’s not visceral during much of its action scenes and not soothing when it intends to be contemplative. Given that most movies are at least 120 minutes (or 135 these days), a 106-minute run-time should feel like a breeze. FF:TSW does not. At all.
What makes that doubly tragic is that filmmakers from Japan usually grasp the nuances of pacing better than most other filmmakers around the planet. Anime tends to exemplify the duality of violent intensity and soothing respite; this form for which Japan is so celebrated is usually very good at creating vibrant and kinetic action sequences and juxtaposing them brilliantly against serene moments of deep meaning and emotive resonance within the same story. Watch the releases of Studio Ghibli for proof. These aspects of pacing should have been par for the course for FF:TSW; but unfortunately, the film seems to run on a pretty standard 4/4 tempo regardless of what type of scene is onscreen. Some notable exceptions to this include the dream sequence which gives the film much needed boosts of energy throughout, as well as an early surgical scene where one of the alien beings is removed from a human host. These instances are executed with real competence, and are among the film's strongest scenes. Unfortunately, the gaps between the strong scenes makes the other pacing issues more apparent.
The pacing problem aside (and it is a big one), the film works adequately despite the cliches and, in some instances, provides some unique and worthwhile ideas. In fact, one could easily make an argument that Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is the best video game to silver screen adaptation we've covered in the series (though, granted, that bar is low). As I thought more about the film over the last week, I liked it more. In fact, I think that there’s an 87-minute edit of this motion picture that is pretty outstanding; and if Square pictures would pay me a salary, I’d dedicate a year of my life to finding that cut. Regardless, in its current warts-and-all version, I enjoy reflecting on Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and find I like it much better in retrospect. It's the type of movie that if anybody wanted me to watch it with them again I gladly would; and that's about as high compliment as I can give out given my free time.
SHOULD DADS BOTHER?
Yeah, I think the dads who appreciate science-fiction as a genre of film will find something to enjoy here. Granted, if you are an aficionado, you're going to see some spare parts in terms of the characters design and story beats, but you may not have seen this exact story in another film. Will it be one of the great sci-fi experiences of your life? Likely not, but it will provide some unique visuals and may connect with you in a way that is unique to your experience and could resonate deeply. The movie seems to be at least aiming toward that.
SHOULD THEY BRING THE KIDS?
Not sure I would. The film’s more spiritual components are a bit too esoteric for the young ones to grasp, and the action is not vibrant enough to warrant a viewing simply for entertainment purposes.