Video game movies are still a pretty mixed bag, despite their having been some successes in the genre in recent years. Back in the far off days of 2001, however, the best there was was the ‘so silly it’s fun’ Street Fighter and a ‘so bad it might be fun to watch’ Super Mario Bros.. It was not a great time to try to bring video game properties to the big screen.
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within tried to do something different though, in more than one way. First off is the fact that the film isn’t actually based on any video games. The Final Fantasy series is one where continuity between games is pretty much nonexistent, with each new numbered entry in the series being a completely fresh story in a brand new world. This kind of made it perfect to adapt into film, as you could come up with any brand new story, slap the Final Fantasy name onto it, and you’ve got instant fan base interest.
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The other thing that the film did that was pretty revolutionary, though would ultimately lead to the downfall of both the project and Square Pictures as a whole, was that it was the first photorealistic computer generated movie. Nowadays CGI has come along in such a way that half of what we see on screen is made purely in the computer, and even some of the best performances in movies can be rendered in CGI; just look at Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. Despite this, there’s not really been an attempt to make an entire movie this way since, and it could be down to the fact that it literally led to the end of the studio, and one of the biggest financial flops in movie history.
The film’s story is set in a future Earth, where an alien invasion has all but destroyed the planet and wiped out humanity. A race of ghost-like creatures called Phantoms have forced humanity behind specially shielded walls into a handful of cities. With a single touch from a Phantom able to rip the life force from a person, and the briefest exposure potentially leading to deadly infection, people have been unable to defeat the creatures.
Scientist Aki Ross (Ming-Na Wen) and her mentor, Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) have discovered that there might be a way of stopping the Phantoms once and for all, but need to gather eight specific spirits from creatures around the world to do so. The story begins with them having already collected five, and Aki on the hunt for the sixth. When she comes under attack from Phantoms she’s rescued by an elite squad of soldiers led by Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin), a former lover of hers.
Presenting her findings to the ruling council, she’s given the chance to try and collect the final spirits, with the help of Gray and his team. However, military leader General Hein (James Woods) is determined to put his own plan into the works, one that could result in even more human deaths.
The story itself is pretty standard sci-fi fare, though the film does try to do its own thing by having the Phantoms being literal ghosts of an alien race, and the life spirit of both people and the planet being an integral part of the story. This mix of science fiction and spirituality is something that had been done in a few of the Final Fantasy games, and it worked pretty well on the big screen too.
What damaged the project, however, was the sheer cost of making it. With an initial budget of $70 million, the film was already a huge undertaking, and a team of 200 workers spent years creating specialised software to create the film, and even had to spend $45 million creating a specialist studio in Hawaii. The costs of the project mounted as the team realised they needed more tech and workers to create a film that would look realistic, and in the end the project came in at close to $137 million. Despite good ticket sales and a lot of interest this would ultimately mean the project ended up with a loss of $94 million.
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Despite being a financial disaster the film was received well by critics, and has developed something of a cult following over the years. Its lead character, Aki Ross, even featured on the cover of men’s magazines, and became the first fictional woman to ever end up on a sexiest women’s list.
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within might be something of a black sheep for the franchise, and one of the biggest box office flops ever, but there’s still a lot to like in this movie.
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was released in the UK on 3rd August 2001.