Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within Review

Actors and actresses must be quivering in their boots, as Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is one of the first mainstream movie indications of the news that they are dreading - studios can now make movies without them. Granted they still need the actors' voice-overs for characters, but surely it is only a matter of time before computers can realistically replicate human voices effortlessly. The emphasis has shifted from the performers to the artistic visionaries, and the use of this 'HyperReal' technology is sure to be utilised by many studios in the future. Don't be fooled into thinking this type of animation is the same as Toy Story or Shrek in its cartoon style, as Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is the first impressive attempt at animating a live action film. Four years in the making, and loosely based on the award winning series of computer games, the film was met with a timid box office reception due to rumours of a poor story-line and overt dependence on visual quality.

The year is 2065 and Earth is under siege. The survivors of an alien onslaught have retreated to barrier cities designed to protect the populous from the ever-advancing invaders. When planning Earth’s continued survival, two ideologies surface: scientist Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland), with the aid of the film’s heroine Aki Ross (Ming-Na), believes the search for the planet’s hidden mystical spirits is the key, whilst the evil General Hein (voice of James Woods, and the spitting image of comedian Jack Dee), whose own family was lost in the war, supports the idea of using heavy violence with the dreaded Zeus Weapon. As a subplot, a love story develops between Aki and Captain Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin), elite squad leader of the Deep Eyes squadron, who are assigned to keep an eye on Aki and Dr. Sid.

On a visual level alone, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is a treat from start to finish. Meticulously detailed in every aspect, from the light shining on the strands of Aki's hair to the elbow movements of Gray when he is running, the film strives as far as it can to convince the audience that they are in fact watching a live-action film. On many occasions, the film succeeds at this task, totally removing the awareness that it is actually animated. However, there are certain sequences in which both lip-sinking and movements are way off in comparison to real life, and this detracts from the overall 'realistic' tag of the film. The main protagonist Aki, bears closest resemblance to Linda Fiorentino, even though it appears that the filmmakers have given her a multi-national look to appeal to the widest possible audience. The Deep Eyes squadron clearly are based on Armageddon, with both Steve Buscemi and Ving Rhames providing voice-overs and Gray rather obviously looking like Ben Affleck (despite being voiced by Alec Baldwin). Even so, it is the older Dr. Sid, voiced by Donald Sutherland, who lands the title of most realistic looking character. His tarnished face and grey beard are just two realistic factors that could easily fool someone who is unaware that they are watching a cartoon.

Final Fantasy: The Sprits Within has received most criticism through its plotting. Many viewers complained that the film was hard to follow due to its new-age concepts, and that the narrative drive of the film was lacking. Granted, the plot of the film is only B-movie action fare, but it may be slightly unfair to blame this entirely on the film. The main defence of the film on this matter is actually its visuals, which are almost too good. Because the visuals are the most fundamental aspect of the film, it's very easy for the viewers to devote themselves entirely to assessing their 'realistic' quality without bothering to engage into the plot. Once the novelty of the visuals has inevitably worn off, the plot is therefore then hard to grasp and appears as incomprehensible, when actually the viewer didn't concentrate on the narrative as much as they should have done. Also, when you do find yourselves engaging in the plot it's very easy to be distracted by the CGI effects, to the point where you'll stand back in amazement at certain sequences and thus withdraw from the plot. Does the last comment mean the film works as a successful animation or doesn’t work? This is a tricky question, as surely the best animation films are ones in which the viewers forget they are watching a cartoon due to the engagement of the narrative? Pinocchio may have inferior visuals and animation to Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within but it works more successfully due to the good balance between the visual and story elements. In essence, this is what is ultimately wrong with Final Fantasy: The Sprits Within, in that it's a one sided victory for the visual elements against the story and plotting elements.

Critical snobs refuse to even devote brain-time to Final Fantasy: The Sprits Within, and this is unfair as the film is certainly worth watching as a visual experience alone. On repeated viewings, it is possible to be even more impressed by the aesthetic of the film, as the editing is so frenetically paced that you miss many of the establishing and more finer detailed facets. Plot-wise, the film is mediocre at best, and suggests that HyperReal films still have a long journey ahead of them. One thing is certain though - these types of realistic animation efforts are certainly here to stay, and can only improve.

For reviewer Raphael Pour-Hashemi's original theatrical review of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, click here.

For reviewer Andy Hall's Region 1 review of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, click here.

Obviously the picture department of the film needs to be flawless, and fortunately the Region 4 PAL version is better than the near-flawless R1 version, as animated films seem to suit the more lines available in PAL. Mastered using filmless digital files, there isn't a glitch in sight. Occasionally, it is easy to feel that the film looks more like a computer-game cut-scene as opposed to an actual film, but transfer wise, there seems no way in which this could be bettered. Presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen.

For a film that is essentially digital in its structure, many R1 owners were angry at the lack of a DTS track on their version. Unfortunately, the R4 follows suit with only a 5.1 mix provided (and lacking the 2.0 mix version also available on the R1). Even so, the sound track is astounding, and each channel contains many excellent surround elements and sound effects are thoughtfully used. The viewer is deposited right-in-the-middle of the action almost as soon as the film commences, and it isn't until the film ends that the atmospherical sound envelope lets up. Because the film is animated, there isn't a trace of extraneous sound, and so the mix is totally devoid of anything but deliberate effects.

Menu: Each disc has its own brilliant and inventive menu. The first disc has a good animated sequence involving Aki's dream, and is more conventional compared to the second disc. The second disc has arguably the most creative use of a menu ever, as it pretends to be a film-set, with the AKI character shooting her lines and then walking through the production and interacting with the real-life filmmakers of Final Fantasy: The Sprits Within. Each menu has a female computer-voice-over that explains in an understandable way how to use some of the features, which is a refreshing change from the usual text instructions. On the whole, the menu system is a perfect framework for the excellent and extraordinary list of extra features that jam-pack the DVD.

Packaging: Housed in a single amaray casing with a case-insert for the second disc. The amaray is transparent blue in colouring. The chapter listings are on the reverse of the cover artwork and visible through the transparent amaray, and the cover artwork feature some nice silver painted text and trims. The amaray is also housed in an outer cardboard dust-cover, which employs a minimalist yet effective design.

The extras mostly feature on the second disc, although some are included on the first. The features that are included are so well chosen and yet so vast in number that the DVD is arguably better than the film itself.

Screen Specific Audio Commentary By Co-Director Moto Sakakibara & Crew: As this commentary is in the Japanese language, the DVD Producers have kindly translated Sakakibara and co's comments into English, which are available as text subtitles corresponding to the appropriate moments. It's slightly strange to read a commentary as opposed to listening to one, but even so this commentary is quite fun to listen to as the Japanese crew are clearly enjoying themselves talking about the film, and this carries over into the translation. Subjects mainly talked about are the visual symbolism in the film and techniques involved in producing the film's impressive visual look.

Screen Specific Audio Commentary By Animation Director Andy Jones, Editor Chris Capp & Staging Director Tani Kunitake: This commentary is fortunately in English, but is surprisingly drier in wit and tone than the previous Japanese commentary. However, it still is an interesting listen, with some fascinating anecdotes regarding late script changes and original extreme ideas for the film that had to be scaled down.

Isolated Elliot Goldenthal Original Score with Commentary by Goldenthal: Because the film is so predominantly visual, it's refreshing to actually sit back and watch the film completely silent other than the brilliant Elliot Goldenthal score, which is highly tense and suitably atmospheric for the film. Goldenthal only comments about his score on very rare occasions, but at least his comments fill some otherwise lengthy gaps between the music cues.

Boards/Blasts: An excellent hour and twenty minute mixture of storyboards, test footage and final film sequences designed to illustrate to the viewer the various stages involved in the production. Also comes with optional yet brilliant 'pop-up' text factoids on screen, which range from detailing the various on-screen gadgets or serve up behind-the-scenes facts. The optional audio commentary is sparse in most places, and doesn't contribute much more than the factoids anyhow.

Documentary: A thirty minute 'making of' documentary that deliberately skims the surface, due to pop-up windows appearing throughout which provide the viewer with a link to more extensive detail on that particularly topic. When finished, the viewer is placed at the same moment he/she left the documentary. This is a disorientating extra, but very good if you aren't interested in watching extra information on some of the topics. It's also possible to access a commentary on certain elements of the documentary, and this is indicated by a blue dot appearing in the top-right corner of the screen.

Theatrical Trailers: Two theatrical trailers are included, and they have been edited from different thematic angles in order to generate the biggest audience.

Aki Photo Shoot: Some digital images of Aki in a bikini or a leather suit, designed to either impress the audience in a postmodern sense of not being able to distinguish if they are real or not, or designed to mess with your head in a sexual way.

Character Files: A novel idea for an animated film, in that presented here are seven three-minute featurettes on each of the main characters (Aki, Gray, Dr. Sid, Hein, Ryan, Jane, Neil) of the film. Narrated by the same computer-voice that is featured on the menu, the featurettes provide detailed 'fictional' character backgrounds and give an introduction to that character's chief animator. Also contained is an 'Easter Egg' - highlight the 'return to menu' option without selecting it, then move right and then left and a blue symbol should appear. Select that symbol and you will be taken to a thirty-four second storyboard sequence.

Vehicle Scale Comparison: The same as the Character Files, except that presented here are three one-minute featurettes detailing the scale comparisons of the vehicles (Bandit, Black Boa, Quatro) featured in the film, again narrated by the menu computer voice. An 'Easter Egg' is featured in this section -highlight the 'return to menu' option without selecting it, then move right and then right again and a blue symbol should appear. Select that symbol and you will be given a two-minute slide show of vehicle artwork from the film, complete with background music.

Final Fantasy Shuffler: A fun if ultimately pointless extra that allows the viewer to edit together his/her own version of the conference room scene. However, editing the scene in any way different to the final film version results in an incomprehensible sequence that is badly timed and lacking narrative. The branching isn't seamless either. Even so, this extra gives the viewer an insight into how hard the editing process of a film actually is.

Trailer Exploration: Hosted by Jun Aida, President of Square USA, this featurette is a four minute rundown of the different strategies employed by the marketing department for Final Fantasy: The Spirit's Within including the various trailers and TV spots that were incorporated into the promotion. This is a novel idea, and beats the usual ritual of just including trailers and TV spots with no explanation.

The "Gray" Project: A five-minute featurette comprising of initial test footage of the various digital elements required to make the film a success. It lacks satisfactory explanation, but it is till fascinating to watch to see some of the film's visual factors in embryonic status.

More Boards/Blasts: A two-minute sequence from the film (an intimate scene between Aki and Gray) which is juxtaposed with original storyboards for that particular scene. It's a pity that there is no 'angle' feature allowing the viewer to switch between the two.

Matte Art Explorations: A six minute featurette exploring the technological advances of matte backgrounds in films, and how they are changed digitally at the touch of a button within seconds. This is interesting, as rarely are backgrounds for a film prepared with such exquisite detail and artistic imagination.

Joke Outtakes: A two minute reel of joke outtakes, or should that be fake joke outtakes, with sequences clearly at the early stages of animation. Even so, some are very funny and certainly very surreal. It's extras like this that can be a breath of fresh air on overtly technical DVD packages.

Compositing Builds: A good seven-minute reel showcasing the various stages of the film's compositing, illustrating each layer of artwork and animation that contributes to an object in the final version of the film. Backed with a frenetic techno score.

Original Opening: A completely different version of the film's opening, with less emphasis on Aki's dream and much more emphasis on establishing a greater sense of the plot for the audience. Some of the visuals presented are very good indeed, particularly Aki floating to the window in zero gravity. However, the immediate opening shots appear too 'cut-scene' like in their appearance, and there is no doubt that the film's final version opening scene is much more effective, even if it could do with slightly more explanation. Unfortunately, the scene is presented non-anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen.

Aki's Dream: Another inspired idea from the producers of the DVD, with each segment of Aki's dream sequences from the film edited together to form one nine-minute short. The dream in its complete form has an excellent fantastical quality to it, matched with some of the most impressive visuals from the film (which is certainly saying something). Presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen.

DVD-ROM Content: A page informing the viewer of the DVD-ROM contents of the disc. There is also an 'Easter Egg' hidden on this page. Move the option selector up and then right, and another icon will appear, which takes you to a forty-five second storyboard reel for the 'Gaia'. With regards to the actual DVD-ROM content of the DVD, the makers have again not failed to impress. Interactive Film Exploration: An option to view the boards/blasts version of the film simultaneously with the screenplay, with the viewer being given a 'Drawstring' which helps to jump to certain scenes. Tour Of Square Pictures: A virtual tour of Square Pictures which is merely just some further trailers and some character design artwork. Final Fantasy Web Gallery: A good series of links to various related websites, which also contain exclusive material to download or view for the audience. Aki Screensaver: A screensaver for MAC and PC users to download and use.

Kelly's Thriller - 'Easter Egg' - A very funny homage to the Michael Jackson Thriller video, with the cast(or even animated characters!) of the film dancing in the same style as the Jackson video, complete with a few phantoms adding some of their dancing efforts to proceedings. To select this, go to the second page of extras on Disc 2 and highlight the 'return to previous page' icon without selecting it, and then select right, which will highlight a small square with Aki dancing. Select this for the video.

Other Easter Eggs: On Disc 2, highlight the 'Play Documentary' option without selecting it, and then move left, followed by up, and a blue symbol will appear which leads to a forty second model of Aki's face tested under differing lighting conditions. Highlight the 'Highlights Menu' option without selecting it, and then move right, followed by down, and a blue/yellow shield symbol will appear which leads to a storyboard restaurant sequence between Gray and Aki that never made the final cut.

A tremendous visual feast marred by poor scripting is given perhaps one of the greatest DVD packages ever released. The extras are well chosen and yet are so immense in number that you'll probably enjoy them more than the film. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within clearly appeals to only a minor audience share, but anyone who purchases this package will no doubt be suitably impressed with what their money has provided them.

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