Monday, August 27, 2012

Within the spirits hand.

"Video game movies suck."  That's been the sentiment among gamers and most film critics since the Super Mario Brothers movie  came out in 1993 and put a fat "don't take me seriously" sign over the concept  ever since. And there's a good reason for that; most video game based movie, those made by Hollywood or western film companies in general anyway, have little or nothing with their source material on either a visual or narrative level, and 9 times out of 10 the name of video game in question is just slapped on for market value. And then there the simple fact that as films, well, these things really do suck the big one (I'm looking at you, every Uwe Boll   movie ever made).

But what about when a video game movie comes along that doesn't suck? What happens when said movie works as a movie? And yes, they do exist, despite what internet forums will tell you. And ya know what? One of them happens to belong to Final Fantasy. No, no. I'm not talking about Advent Children, although that's a damn good movie too in its own right. No, I'm talking about the other Final Fantasy movie, the one that was actually released theatrically in the US and most of you probably don't remember or have never heard of. I'm, of course, referring to 2001's Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.

As far as plot goes, here's the summery and this does contain spoilers, so look away now if you don't  want the movie to be ruined for you: Spirits Within is a hard science fiction film that takes place in the far future on a post-apocalyptic Earth in where many years ago a meteor crashed into the planet, but what people soon discovered was said meteor was a kind of Noah's Ark for a race of energy based beings dubbed "Phantoms." Sounds pretty straight forward, but there's a wrinkle. Ya see, despite many years of  blowing the meteor to hell many times over, and developing technology that can protect people from and kill these things, nothing seems to be working, and the meteor and the Phantoms are somehow killing the Earth on a spiritual level. Yes, spiritual, as in spirit (hence the title). If a person comes into contact with a Phantom or one of the alien fauna that came with the meteor, then basically their soul gets ripped from the their body, or if a fragment of a Phantom gets into your body, it devours your soul more slowly unless its removed. The central characters Aki Ross and Doctor Sid have a theory that every thing in the universe has a soul, including planets, or Gaia, and that the Phantoms are somehow eating away at Earth's soul. Based on this theory they set out to find  9 special spirits that they hope to amplify/weaponize and they hope that that will cancel the Phantom's out of existence. Pretty much in the same way that two waves of equal and opposite force cancel each other when they come into contact with each other.

No body really believes them though and that's where, I think, the plot really gets interesting. Ya see,  everyone, including Aki, Sid and the other characters (both major and minor), think that the Phantoms are the classic alien invaders that must be destroyed. But during the course of the movie, Aki discovers that that's not the case at all. The Phantoms aren't an invading army. In fact, this isn't even an invasion. There was no grand plan to crash an army into Earth, no super galactic intelligence that wants us dead for apparently no reason. No, the Phantoms all died long ago in a war so destructive, that it destroyed their entire planet Krypton style. The meteor is just a part of their planet that found its way to Earth. That's right people, the meteor hit the Earth by pure chance and what the characters been fighting the whole time are GHOSTS. *slow clap for genuine cleverness*.  Well ok, its not that straight forward. What the Phantoms actually are are living memories of an alien Gaia, lost and frightened and totally unaware that they've become an accidental invasion force. Its pretty much the alien Gaia killing the Earth like a parasite. Either way, its a refreshing and clever take on the whole alien invader genre.

Final Fantasy fans, incidentally, will recognize Dr. Sid's theory of Gaia as pretty much the same thing as The Lifestream from Final Fantasy VII, and that was no accident. But that also brings me to the biggest complaint    that Final Fantasy fans have with Spirits Within, which for those of you who play the games have probably picked up on from the trailer. Aside from the Gaia concept, Spirits Within has nothing visually to do with its source material. Now is it just me, or did that compliant strike anyone else as incredibly stupid in this particular case? Any Final Fantasy fan whose been with the series a long time will tell you that each new numbered installment (direct sequels like Final Fantasy X-2 and XIII-2 don't count) has, in terms of visuals, setting plot and characters; nothing to do with its predecessor, save for the reuse of  common enemies, magic spells, musical motifs and other things like the series mascot, the Chocobo and a character named Cid (pronounced "Sid"). Ya see, every Final Fantasy game is more or less self-contained with a new setting, characters and plot for each installment 
And yes, I'll be the first to admit that the common enemies and magic, and the familiar musical tunes are absent from the film. And the Chocobo is only  seen for a brief few seconds on one of Aki's t-shirts. And while I'm as baffled as anyone as to why the musical motifs were left out. I can't really jump on with the fans about the rest of it. Guys, this film didn't take place in a "Science-Fantasy" (a science fiction story set in a fantasy world) setting like a lot of the games did at the time (and still do). The movie is "hard science fiction" and having the characters riding Chocobos, using magic and fighting monsters (as defined by the games) in a realistic (or more realistic) setting, where such things are proven not to exist, would have made no sense.  Even if they had made the Chocobo a Phantom, there's no way (and no reason for) the characters to ride the damn thing.
Anyway, Instead of relying on the games visuals elements and history, the film makers decided to capture the feel of Final Fantasy by reusing some of the same story themes and character archetypes of the recent games of the time, particularly Final Fantasy 7. And so far as I'm concerned, they did so pretty damn well in my opinion. Spirits Within is one of those rare licensed property  movies that can actually stand on its own two feet as a movie. You don't need to be a fan of the games in order to understand and like it. My sister, who has never played a Final Fantasy game in her entire life, saw this movie with me in the theater and enjoyed it (though admittedly probably not as much as I did). What's more, even though this is technically an animated film, they don't treat this like a "kids" movie, they treat it like a serious, adult oriented drama while staying as respectful as possible to the spirit of its source material. Part of this has to do with the fact the company who made the movie are the same people who actually make the games, Squaresoft (now Squarenix). Final Fantasy's creator, Hironobu Sakaguchi, wrote the original screenplay and even directed the movie. And I think he did a damn good job for someone who had never directed a major motion picture before. Square even brought on board major Hollywood production talent to help with production and even some big name actors like Alec Baldwin, James Wood, Donald Sutherland and Ming-Na (famous for voicing the title character in Disney's Mulan, and acting in The Joy Luck Club movie) to provide the voices of the characters. So the final product is an sci-fi action movie that combines the best elements of both American and Japanese storytelling and film making. A hybrid that I personally wish would happen more often.

Anyway, Spirits Within is also remembered for for visuals and special effects. In case you haven't noticed, Spirits Within is a CGI movie, but what made it unique was the amount of detail that went into the character models. Seriously, this movie is GORGEOUS to look at. Take a look at this scene here as an example. Look at how the characters and the the way they move:

Pretty realistic huh? While admittedly it wasn't the first movie to be totally done in CGI (that honor belongs to Disney and Pixar's Toy Story), it was the first to do it in photo-realistic style and as you can see, it looks amazing by 2001 standards. Now would you believe that this whole movie was shot using motion capture technology? Today that's pretty standard, but back then, nobody had ever thought to use that kind of tech for a whole film before. The tech was still in its infancy when production started in the mid 90's, so Square poured millions upon millions of dollars into developing it as quickly as possible and even opened up their own film company (Square Pictures) just for the this movie and any future films they might want to do. It was an ambitions project, one that Square and Paramount (who distributed the film) marketed the hell out for years before its released. I remember seeing TV segments devoted to it on things like Entertainment Tonight and some news shows (if memory serves). Back then, that was unheard of for a video game tie-in movie...but if you're getting the sinking feeling that that same ambition and hype came back to bite them in the ass when this thing saw the finally saw the light of would be right.

Let me put to you this way: When it was all said and done the final budget of the film was $137 million US dollars, almost all of which came from Squaresoft's pockets. The film...only made a total of $32 million US dollars at the North American box office, and only $85 million world wide. Making it, despite much critical praise, some award nominations and being a moderate success overseas, the biggest box office disaster in the history of film at that time. There are probably a lot of long winded and boring reasons for this, but I think it really boils down to three things: A) Not being able to live up to its own hype. B) the fact that it was animated made people think it was a kids movie (a stigma that animation has never truly been able to over come in North America). And B) and most importantly, it had Final Fantasy name on it, and maybe that put people off from going because, well, because of the reputation video game movies have. I can't help but feel like that if it didn't have the name attached to it probably would have been much better received. Sad but true as I see it.  

Anyway, the film's failure almost destroyed Squaresoft, who only manged to stay in business by merging with rival company Enix and with some financial help from Sony, whom Square sold their film division too a few years later. Hironobu Sakaguchi also voluntarily later left Square in 2004 to form his own company, Mistwalker (makers of the Blue Dragon series and Lost Odyssey for the Xbox 360 and most recently The Last Story for the Nintendo Wii). And despite selling their movie division, Squarenix never truly got out of the film industry. In 2003 they were one of the main sponsors for the anime version of the popular Manga (Japanese comic) series "Full Metal Alchemist" and they even commissioned an anime based off the Final Fantasy mythos in the form of TV show,  Final Fantasy Unlimited , the same year. But in 2005 Squarenix threw their hats back into the film industry proper when they released a new, this time direct to DVD, CGI Final Fantasy movie, this time based off of  Final Fantasy VII, called Final Fantasy VII:Advent Children. Which is a great movie in its own right and is responsible for (partially) dismantling the notion of "Video game movies suck."

As for Spirits Within, its legacy in the world of movies doesn't go unnoticed. The motion capture technology used to make it, and the amount of realism that Square was able to squeeze out of it, has since become a staple in the arts of special effects and animation, paving the way for other motion capture films like Monster House, Polar Express, its spiritual successor Advent Children, and even the most recent film adaption of Beowulf. And also raised the bar for realism for computer animation that can be seen in films like Despicable Me, Up and others. The tech also opened the door for new special effect techniques that would be explored, and later perfected, in such movies as the Matrix Trilogy, The Star Wars prequels and even Avatar (well how else do you think they made the Na'vi's bodies or all the creatures in Star Wars). The film itself has since become a cult classic, and is widely available on DVD, online, streaming video services like Netflix (last time I checked) and was even one of the first animated films that I remember being sold on Blu-Ray.

If you all can find it, then check it out. You'll thank me later ^_^.

and I'm out.           


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