From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.
This one is from May 3rd, 2014…
All the way through Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, despite being impressed by the revolutionary photo-realistic animation on show, my prevailing thought was simply… why aren’t they just making this film with *real* people?
Maybe that’s missing the point of Hironobu Sakaguchi’s endeavour in bringing his legendary & critically acclaimed futurepunk fantasy series of video games to the big screen, but on the other hand it employs major Hollywood actors to play these computer generated parts, and indeed the story is about as generic blockbuster as it’s possible to get. Very little about The Spirits Within couldn’t have been achieved with real actors on real sets in actual environments, rendering the whole point of this a little… well, moot.
Ultimately though, that’s not at all the reason this Final Fantasy is a creative failure in the same way it was a huge box-office bomb that sank its production company and upheld the ‘curse’ of video game adaptations.
No, the reason this fails is because of the fact for a movie about alien invasions, hi-tech cities, gung-ho marines & futuristic warfare, The Spirits Within is almost always a staggeringly dull affair.
It feels, in fact, like you’re watching a video game someone else is having the fun of playing, like over 90 minutes of those insanely long cut scenes in many Japanese epic games such as Final Fantasy that spent a torturous amount of time explaining plot & backstory, amidst horrendously cliched & cringeworthy attempts to develop ‘character’. It’s exactly the same on the big screen here, only you don’t then get the odd bit of carnage to thrill the senses yourself.
Sakaguchi obviously knows how to animate everything, and it does admittedly look quite stunning – though they still move a little stiffly & arguably animation works better with non-humanoid characters, the photo-realism is quite remarkable & arguably employs technology later carried on by such films as Avatar; though oddly enough the environments around these characters are often very bland, grey cities or barren wastelands, and though tonally it fits Sakaguchi’s dour story, you do feel a trick has been missed to employ more of a visual feast on the eyes.
Where he really goes wrong is everywhere else though – the script is uniformly terrible, spouting cliched line after cliched line, with a plot that tries to blend action spectacle with New Age hippy science, and often scenes with reams of EXPOSITION and characters telling each other what they already know. And as for the characters, well… stock cliches, all, and serious talent including Ming-Na, Alec Baldwin, Donald Sutherland, Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi almost literally sleep walk through their roles. Really. At times you sense they’re about to dose off, mid-delivery. Warning: this also contains the voice of James Woods, so there’s a reason alone to avoid it these days.
Ultimately there is something to admire in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, which attempts to push the boundaries of what can visually be achieved using advanced photo-realistic animation, and for that Hironobu Sakaguchi should be commended. Does it need to happen again? No. It’ll be great for the future of video games that want to engage people with a compelling narrative, but we don’t need it on the big screen as a viewing experience. You cannot convey the same level of emotion, performance or, ironically, spirit, without *real* people. This is why we have actors and why we will always need them.
The Spirits Within does itself no favours in this regard of course by being a thuddingly joyless experience that feels twice as long, with a leaden pace, an awful script, phoned in performances and a plot that’s just a load of hippy nonsense dressed up in blockbuster clothes.