Head on down to the cinema, and you’d be hard pressed not to find some form of CGI entertainment available. Toy Story kicked off a new revolution in making movies when it was released way back in 1995, setting a new benchmark for visual execution in films. But in 2001, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within took that breakthrough and evolved it into something magnificent.
In the year 2065, the next great assault against an invading race of phantom-like aliens is about to be launched. Dr. Aki Ross, a brilliant young scientist, races to find the invaders’ secrets, not only to save the planet, but herself as well after her body is infected by alien particles. She teams up with the prestigious Deep Eyes military squadron, led by her old friend Grey Edwards. But as Aki, her mentor Dr. Sid, and Grey work toward a peaceful end, the scheming General Hein devises a plot to eradicate the aliens in one swift, destructive blow…even if it destroys the Earth right along with them.
I’ll be honest here, and admit that the story behind FF:TSW is bit out there, but you can’t deny that some heavy imagineering was present here. It may be trippy, but when it came to themes and concepts, the film would have been impossible to film or even get greenlit if it had used live action sets and actors instead.
And speaking of actors, what an all star cast! Look at the voice talent that was assembled, and you’d know immediately that Hollywood was dead serious on being serious when they spent a staggering $137 million to get this movie made. From Ming-Na as Dr Aki Ross, through to Alec Baldwin and his reliable gruff voice being backed up by Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, James Woods, Peri Gilpin and Donald Sutherland, the film just shines.
You’ve got characters that despite being nothing more than a bunch of computer code, are in essence far more relatable than anything that Hollywood has churned out in recent years. Aki is wonderfully human, without having to wander into that uncanny valley issue that plagues most ambitious productions, while the James Woods voiced General Hein isn’t just villainous, but one who believes that he is genuinely trying to help save the world. And nothing is more frightening than an antagonist who thinks himself to be in the right with his actions.
And for a movie made almost 12 years ago, those visuals still hold up beautifully today. Things we take for granted in CGI films today, such as hair, lighting and realistic human movements, all of that was pioneered in FF:TSW. But that’s not the only reason why I love this film.
Technically, the story may have been lacking in key areas, but the core ideas of life after death, returning and being reborn, that struck a chord with me back in 2001, after I had experienced some losses of my own. It moved me, and that end sequence still has me on the verge of tears today, while my heart beats faster. And that theme and tempo is thanks director Hironobu Sakaguchi, who translated his own thoughts on life and death into this masterpiece.
Was the movie a bust at the box office? Yes, yes it was. But sweet alien spirits, did it set a precedent for what was possible when you threw enough talent and money at a project. It’s just such a beautifully arranged film, that it’s hard not to be impressed with FF:TSW, no matter what your age group happens to be.
If you’re looking for a film that has more underneath its impressive veneer than quick jokes, snazzy visuals and a benchmark for technical excellence, you owe it to yourself to watch The Spirits within.