Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within Review

For a comparison with the region 4 version of this disc, look at Raphael Pour-Hashemi's review.

The Movie
Earth 2065. For many years the planet has been ravaged by the Phantoms, bizarre non-corporeal aliens who arrived after crashing into the Earth in a meteor, and have now killed a great deal of the world's population. Those who survived now live behind shielded cities, which the Phantoms cannot penetrate. Trying to bring an end to the problem is Doctor Aki Ross (voiced by ER's Ming-Na) who along with Dr Sid (voiced by Donald Sutherland) are trying to locate the spirits of the Earth, or the "Gaia", which will counteract and eliminate the force of the Phantoms. Of course, not everyone is convinced that this passive approach is the best method. General Hein (voiced by James Woods) is the hawk of the piece, and has assembled a huge gun - the Zeus Cannon - which he plans to fire from space to destroy the Phantom's nest. With the help of the Deep Eyes Squadron Aki must attempt to save the planet before the Phantoms - or General Hein - destroy it.

Four years in the making and the brainchild of the Final Fantasy video games creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, this movie broke new ground in movie making. There have been plenty of computer generated movies before - notably from the Pixar Studios - but never before had an entire movie of photo-realistic characters been attempted. So this film really needs to be analyzed on two fronts: does it achieve its technical goals, and does it work as a movie?

Firstly, technically this movie is a stunning achievement. The amount of detail that has been put into the imagery is astounding. Although the main character of Aki Ross is impressive (notice that hers is the only character with long hair due to its rendering complexity), the rest of the characters are equally well done, as each character had their own lead animator. Dr Sid's aged face for instance, is stunningly created (see the picture alongside). More than just the characters, the whole look of the movie has been beautifully constructed with great attention to detail and design. Particularly good were the holographic control systems, and the gel-pack parachute replacements. It isn't perfect though, as the word that circulated during the film's cinematic release that it was indistinguishable from real life is far from true - this still looks like a CG film, albeit a high quality one. Some lip-synching and facial expressions still need a little work and very occasionally some of the characters' movement looks artificial. But overall, given the current state of technology, the filmmakers more than achieved what they set out to do.

This is a movie as well of course, rather than just an exercise in computer graphics technology, so how does it hold up in that department? Many people - including myself - were expecting little more than a fancy and extended computer game cut scene, with all effort going into the style and none into the content. It's not a fantastic story by any means, but it's significantly better and more watchable than I had possibly expected. Hironobu Sakaguchi took inspiration from his Final Fantasy games to create an anime-style movie that has plenty of decent action sequences, and the characters are helped due to the excellent cast of voice actors employed to fill out the roles. It's also a story that's not afraid to kill off many of the characters throughout it, something many live action movies don't do (for fear of jeopardizing sequels). But like the technical aspects, it's not perfect. The story borrows from many other SF movies, the lead characters are a bit flat, and the good guys versus crazy General who wants to blow everything up plot is a pretty well hackneyed theme. In summary though, a reasonable story that is a lot better than it could have been.

Is this then the future of filmmaking? Probably not (yet) but as the technology improves so films like this will become more commonplace. As the first of its kind I found it much more of a hit than a miss, though disappointingly the cinema-going public did not agree, and it failed to recoup its cost at the box office. Hopefully that will not deter from pushing ahead from making more films in this groundbreaking style.

As this is a computer-generated movie, the picture has been derived directly from the digital source. This makes it extremely good quality indeed, although the very dark nature of the movie often doesn't allow you to see how good it is. Only in a few scenes, notably in Aki's dream sequences and also towards the end of the movie, is it really apparent how clear and well defined the image is.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is very, very impressive. There are plenty of excellent directional effects and the sound immerses you into the movie just as it should do. The music also sounds very powerful, even more so in the isolated score option. There is also a French Surround option, and (equally pointlessly to me) an English Dolby Surround track.

Every once in a while a DVD release comes along that is very good, with more extra features than usual. And then a disc set like this one appears, which is absolutely immense. There are two discs in the box, and each on their own contain more material to put most DVDs to shame. Wading through all these extras will take you plenty of time, and they include the following:

Disc 1 Extras
The movie disc itself contains the following:

There are four commentaries on this disc. The first is a commentary featuring Co-Director Moto Sakakibara, Sequence Supervisor Hiroyuki Hayashida, Sets and Props lead artist Tatsuro Maruyama and Phantom Supervisor Takoo Noguchi. As these guys are all Japanese that's the language this commentary is delivered in. My Japanese stops after "yes", "no" and "two beers please", so fortunately there are English (or French) subtitles. The commentary itself is quite lively, with lots of laughter and jollity, talking mostly about the look of the film and the development of the story (helpfully clarifying some of the end sequence story). The second commentary features Animation Director Andy Jones, Editor Chris Capp and Staging Director Tani Kunitake, and is done in English. This commentary is more technical in nature, and concentrates more on the development of scenes and sequences. The third commentary is an isolated score with commentary by composer Elliot Goldenthal. This allows you to listen to the excellent score in its full glory with (occasional) contributions from Goldenthal regarding the style and application of the music used. Note that as the first commentary is subtitled, it is possible to listen to another commentary - or the film itself - whilst reading through those subtitles.

Many DVDs feature animatics and storyboards; this disc takes it one big step forward. With the Boards and Blasts section it is possible to watch the entire movie in this form. This can be accompanied by a filmmaker's commentary featuring various crew members contributing during the scenes that they worked on. Additionally, the factoids option displays pop-up windows during the movie featuring information both of the movie development and facts about the story.

The trailers section features the teaser trailer and the theatrical trailer. Additionally there is a game trailer for Final Fantasy X which looks quite beautiful. Finally, there are trailers for Men in Black, Starship Troopers and Japanese Anime movie Metropolis.

Disc 2 Extras
Disc 2 opens with a clever sequence where the characters from the movie walk "off set" and into the real world, leading to the following extra material:

The centrepiece is the Making of Final Fantasy documentary. This has a running time of about 30 minutes but in reality lasts for much longer as it features "jump-out" points where you can click when an icon appears in the bottom left, starting more footage about the aspect of the movie being discussed. This works well when you jump out of an actual movie; I'm not quite sure of the point of it here, when you are already in a documentary, jump out to more documentary for up to 10 minutes, then come back and forget what was being discussed when you left! Nevertheless, this doc covers pretty much all that you would expect of the production process, from the original story concepts, through to design and production. It's a little unscripted and unpolished at times, but divulges plenty of interesting information. As an extra bonus it is possible to turn on a filmmaker's commentary at certain points.

Beyond the main documentary lies a wealth of other features. Firstly the Character Files feature the seven major characters of the movie, and gives information about both the characters themselves, and the actor who provided the voice. There are very brief interviews with some of the (voice) stars here, which is about the only aspect that this DVD is short on.

The Vehicle Scale Comparisons works similarly to the character files, but instead looks at three key vehicles that were designed for the movie. This is intercut with images of real vehicles that were the inspiration for them.

The Final Fantasy Shuffler allows you to interactively re-edit the conference room scene into a different order. It's quite a clever idea, but it has been done before and is a little gimmicky.

The publicity for the movie is examined in Trailer Explorations which is a brief piece discussing the usage of trailers, from the amount to show in a teaser through to the full theatrical version.

The Gray Project is a six minute proof of concept piece that was assembled before the movie began production. This was used to demonstrate to the studio (and financiers) what could be achieved. It's mostly in animatic form.

Although there is a storyboard / animatic version of the movie on disc 1, there are yet more comparisons between the raw and finished product in the More Boards / Blasts section. Alongside this is Matte Art Explorations, which is a six minute segment on how the background mattes are now designed and created in the computer, then composited with foreground action. The final production design segment is Compositing Builds, which examines how the many layers of each frame are composed by deconstructing them from example scenes.

Joke Outtakes is a brief selection of fake jokes and outtakes. It's mostly in raw animatic form and while moderately amusing is not a patch on the Pixar outtakes in A Bug's Life and the Toy Story movies.

A deleted scene is available in the Original Opening which is a completely different version of the beginning of the movie. This one is far more "workmanlike" with Aki explaining the background of the plot. To those (like me) who liked the movie, it probably explains too much too soon; those who complained that the movie was difficult to follow may have preferred it. In any case the dream sequence opening used had far more impact. The section Aki's Dream allows you to watch all of the dream sequence as one, rather than split up into bits as it is in the movie.

There are also extensive DVD-ROM features. Unlike many discs which claim ROM features, then turn out to have only a fancy link to the official website, this has plenty of "on board" material. This includes the Entire Screenplay that can be read alongside a windowed version of the boards and blasts version of the movie from disc 1. Additionally there is a Virtual Tour of Square Pictures which has a great deal of clickable info and pictures. Also featured is an Aki Screensaver, and finally - of course - a Link to the Official Website.

Unsurprisingly, there are a number of Easter Eggs spread over both discs. These are:

Disc 1 Eggs
1. Choose "Special Features" then "DVD-ROM Content". Press 'UP' twice to display some Japanese text. Selecting this displays some still shots of Aki, notably the bikini pictures.

Disc 2 Eggs
1. From the main menu screen highlight "Play Documentary" then press 'LEFT' then 'UP', displaying Japanese text. Selecting this shows some 3D models of Aki's face with various lighting effects.
2. Highlight the "Highlights Menu" then press 'RIGHT' then 'DOWN'. Clicking the symbol that appears will show a storyboard of a man and woman at a restaurant - an early storyboard of a sequence between Aki and Gray that was not used.
3. Go to the "Character Files" section and highlight the first character (Aki). Now go 'DOWN' to the "return" symbol, then click 'RIGHT' then 'LEFT'. An additional circular symbol appears; clicking this shows a brief storyboard sequence.
4. Go to the "Vehicle Scale Comparisons" and highlight the first vehicle (Bandit). Now go 'DOWN' to the "return" symbol then press 'RIGHT' twice. Clicking the symbol that appears shows some more video footage of the vehicles used in the movie.
5. Go to the "DVD-ROM Content" option. Press 'UP' then 'RIGHT' displays a symbol that when clicked will show a storyboard for the Gaia crater.
6. On the second page of the "Highlights Menu" make sure the "More Boards / Blasts" option is highlighted. Now press 'UP' then 'RIGHT' twice. This displays a small animated icon. Selecting this runs a sequence based on a certain Michael Jackson video.

Final Thoughts
I was expecting a movie that was technically stunning but otherwise poorly written. Whilst not brilliant, it was significantly better than that. The DVD set is absolutely immense, and as such is an absolutely essential purchase. It deserves to recoup some of the money lost during the cinematic run of this movie, and as such is highly recommended.

8 out of 10
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out of 10

Last updated: 03/05/2018 14:07:21

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