In 2001, the future of animation would change forever. At least, that’s what Columbia Pictures hoped for when they greenlit Square Pictures’ Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Although not an adaptation of any specific game, the studio intended this as the definitive new chapter in the Final Fantasy saga. Notably, it would take its trademark melding of science-fiction and fantasy to the big screen with photorealistic animation. The cherry on top? Series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi would be directing.
The hype for The Spirits Within was unreal. If successful, the film would possibly usher in a new wave of animation. The film’s lead character was planned to be the world’s first “virtual actress”, set to appear in multiple films in different roles. That particular plan picked up so much steam that Aki Ross actually appeared in Maxim! Four years and a $137 million budget later, The Spirits Within opened to middling reviews and became a certified bomb. Now with Final Fantasy VII Remake reviving series interest, the question arises: what is The Spirits Within‘s legacy?
It isn’t the story, that’s for sure. In the year 2065, creatures known as Phantoms have driven humanity to live in barrier cities protected from their influence. Doctor Aki Ross (Ming-Na Wen) and her mentor Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) try to find a way to stop the Phantoms in a non-violent manner. However, the loose canon General Hein (James Woods) wants to use lethal force against them, which could in turn damage the planet.
The Spirits Within has a simple plot, which isn’t in and of itself a crime. The problem lies in the execution. Al Reinert and Jeff Vintar’s screenplay inundates the player with so much technical jargon that it makes basic concepts hard to follow. Moreover, one has to deal with line deliveries from actors bored out of their minds. Even the likes of Alec Baldwin and Steve Buscemi are mostly there to show up and nothing more.
At least Wen and Sutherland fare a little better than the rest. Admittedly, their characters aren’t what one would call memorable. Nevertheless, Aki and Sid feel more like living, breathing things than their robotic counterparts. Still, it’s hard to imagine a world where Aki became a virtual superstar. Although if she were to become one, it would be less due to Wen’s performance and more due to the downright revolutionary work Square Pictures did on her animation.
Here comes the virtue of The Spirits Within: it’s a visual masterpiece. The sunset over the skyline, the cold of outer space, the horror of the Phantoms, those character models, you name it. From a design perspective, it accomplishes a sense of realism that had never been seen before. It goes beyond realism into expressionism. The Spirits Within is a painting by master creators. Even though its subject matter is not interesting on its own, the style behind it mesmerizes.
The animation is so beautiful, in fact, that it overtakes the film itself. Although photorealistic animation would soon become a rarity in Hollywood movies, the technology did go to good use in one medium: video games. Many games, especially those in the Final Fantasy series, have adopted and evolved the technology from The Spirits Within to help better immerse the player into their storylines.
And I couldn’t be happier. While The Spirits Within is a dull film on its own, it helped further the medium that spawned it in the first place. As I played through Final Fantasy VII Remake, tears in my eyes at moments, I also smiled… knowing that The Spirits Within made that possible. That is its legacy. –James Preston Poole
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is on Digital HD and home video.