I’ll never forget seeing Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within for the first time. I attended an opening weekend showing, but when I entered the theatre, there were only a few people already seated, and not many more showed up. “Oh no,” I thought, “this movie is going to bomb.” I muddled through the nonsensical plot and dull characters to the end, sighing as the film came to a close. I imagined we’d all shuffle out together, heads hung low, regretting the purchase of our tickets, but as the credits began to roll, a strange sound arose from behind me. From the back row, what must have been a mere one or two arch Square fanboys, neckbeards under chin, still found the energy to muster a few sad claps. Each slap of hand had a distinct crispness to it, helped along by the emptiness of the room.
I’ve heard impassioned theatre clapping, and this was not one of those times. No, these were the plain, forced claps of a fanboy so convinced that he must love this movie that he has tricked himself into believing he liked it. These were the claps of a man trying to justify his pre-screening excitement. I heard the same claps when I went to see Star Wars: Episode I.
Like so many games of late that include the title “Final Fantasy,” The Spirits Within is not Final Fantasy. It holds none of the melancholy or the grandeur of the games. What few thematic links with the series it carries don’t translate well to film. There is a party of heroes, but they’re not worth caring about. There is a scheming villain, but it’s hard to believe a smirking man in a flowing leather trench-coat will ever get his way. There is science gone mad, but its ultimate defeat is perfunctory. What the movie does have in common with a video game is a contrived plot, one in which the main characters must find a bunch of something special before the world is destroyed.
The characters are as flat as any in a video game. Without the winding, 40 hour journey to associate with them, it is impossible to hold for them any attachment. As each member of the small team of central characters was killed off during my latest viewing, my reaction was not, “ouch,” or “oh I liked him,” it wasn’t even “I hated her.” It was simply, “huh, we must be getting near the end, about time that one kicked it.”
The movie is headed up by Aki Ross, a scientist in search of a solution to the giant, rampaging alien “spirits” that have decimated the Earth. She’s got a secret, there’s a little bit of alien stuck in her, and it will kill her unless a solution for these things can be found. She’s got an old man for a friend, Cid (his name being the only instance of fan service I noticed), and he’s, well, he’s old. She’s got a square-jawed soldier for a romantic interest. He’s, well, he’s voiced by Alec Baldwin. These are literally the only defining character traits I noticed during my latest viewing. The characters feel like they just sort of exist because something needed to be put on screen.
I’ll give the movie this, The first time I saw Spirits Within, I was genuinely amazed by how good it looked. There were times I actually forgot I was watching computer animation. It was a legitimate accomplishment at the time. The animation holds up well enough to still be passable today, although it’s clear we’ve come pretty far since.
The Spirits Within brought about the rapid demise of Square Pictures. The company that made it suffered tremendous financial loss because of it. Its disastrous theatrical run was quickly followed by the merger of Square with old rival Enix. Many speculated then that the financial hardship prompted the merger, although the company denies it now. The irony of the film is that the story behind the story is the most memorable thing about it.
It would be the only memorable thing about it for me if it weren’t for those sad claps in the theatre.