When 'Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within' first unspooled in theaters, entirely CGI-animated films were still an unproven commodity at the box office. Sure, Pixar had scored with several big hits, but the major studios were still debating whether computer-generated animation could be a commercially viable medium equal to classic hand-drawn animation. Accordingly, in the summer of 2001, all eyes were on Sony's mega-budget 'Final Fantasy' and DreamWorks' 'Shrek' (which came out within a couple of months of each other) -- together, the two films were supposed to be the test case to determine the future of CGI at the box office. Thank god for the big green ogre...
'Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within' was, if not the biggest bomb in recent Hollywood history, certainly one of the costliest. With a production budget reported at $140 million, its final domestic tally of $32 million was beyond dismal -- it was a money sucker of epic proportions for Sony. Worse, this hoped-for franchise starter never got out of neutral, as 'The Spirits Within' was quickly (and mercifully) forgotten.
Based on one of the most popular video games series in history, 'Final Fantasy' was certainly a groundbreaking attempt at creating photo-realistic human beings in the context of a narrative, feature-length animated film. Indeed, it's hard to argue that 'The Spirits Within' didn't succeed on a technical level -- the film is often amazing to watch -- but it just didn't engage critics or audiences on an emotional level. Among its many issues are a convoluted plot, flat voice performances, and an environmentally-themed storyline that -- looking back -- seems to be ahead of its time. Al Gore, where were you when Sony needed you?
As the film opens, it's 2046 and Earth has been invaded by aliens (known as "The Phantoms") who steal people's souls. Dr. Aki (Ming Na) is on a hunt to find eight "spirits" that, when brought together (bear with me on this one), will create an "inverted waveform that will negate the life force of the alien intruders." Not so keen on this idea is General Hein (James Woods) who believes that a pragmatic military counteroffensive is the best solution -- not a bunch of spiritual mumbo-jumbo. Aki and Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) are then forced by Hein to work with Grey Edwards (Alec Baldwin) and his ragtag team of soldiers. As the film progresses, our heroes race to find the remaining "spirits" before The Phantoms take over the world -- and before Hein can activate his supreme weapon of destruction.
Watching 'Final Fantasy' again for the first time in six years, I'm reminded that while the story had potential, if you erase the gimmick of photo-realistic CGI renderings of human beings, all that's left is a fairly hollow center. Indeed, overall, the film plays out like a technological advancement in search of a movie. As groundbreaking as the pixel-caricatures may have been, they're weirdly artificial -- creepy, even -- and there is none of the whimsy of a Pixar to balance out the ick factor. And it's not just the fault of the visuals. Just like all those big-name actors in the 'Star Wars' prequels who delivered horrible performances because they were stuck standing in front of a blue screen through the whole movie, 'Final Fantasy' suffers from stilted, flat line readings from an otherwise-exceptional cast. What a waste.
Time has also dulled much of the zing of 'Final Fantasy's once-cutting edge visuals, which were the primary reason to see the film in the first place. Full length CGI-animated features are now commonplace, and the technology has undergone such huge advancements that 'Final Fantasy' now seems almost obsolete. And unlike such classics as the original 'Star Wars,' 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' or even 'Jurassic Park' (all movies with effects that have certainly become dated over the years), nothing about the characters or themes in 'The Spirits Within' has any resonance.
Instead, 'Final Fantasy' is now really only worth seeing as a footnote in the history of CGI animation, or -- perhaps more importantly -- as dazzling proof of the old Hollywood adage that no matter how much money and effects you throw on the screen, there is no substitute for a great story.
'Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within' first arrived on standard-def DVD back in late 2001 with quite a lot of hoopla. Back in the day when direct digital-to-digital transfers were relatively rare, 'Final Fantasy' was hot stuff, and the DVD looked pretty terrific. Given that the source has not aged a day since (literally), accordingly this first-ever Blu-ray release of the title holds up smashingly.
Sony presents 'The Spirits Within' in a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode at the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and the master is, again, pristine. Blacks are pitch perfect, and contrast perfectly balanced. The film's visual style is not bright and bouncy like a Pixar film, but colors remain perfectly saturated, with no bleeding or noise to mar the presentation. Since such a big deal was made at the time of the film's release about its photo-realistic rendering of human characters, it's worth mentioning that "fleshtones" do look splendid. And while the overall palette is a bit stylized at times, there are moments that are still utterly unnerving in their believability.
The level of detail to the transfer is also often stunning. Fine textures such as hair, skin and non-solid objects (such as water, etc.) look strikingly three-dimensional. The animation is also quite sharp, with little of the over-done motion blur that sometimes mars these types of all-CGI features. Also a plus is that, unlike the old standard-def DVD, there are no compression artifacts to speak of. With no real visual flaws to speak of, 'Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within' earns a rare five-star video rating.
Sony has provided this Blu-ray with a new uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track (48kHz/16-bit/4.6mbps), and considering that the film is essentially a video game come to life, it's perfectly suited for the high-resolution audio format. With a soundtrack entirely constructed in the studio, the movie's sound designers seem to have fun taking advantage of every opportunity to excite the ear.
Overall fidelity of the track is terrific with superior dynamic range. From the drum-tight low bass all the way up to the highest octaves, the clarity of this track is generally superb. Even if the performances are listless, voices are expertly recorded. Volume balance is also spot on, so I never had to reach for my remote.
Best of all are the surrounds, which are almost constantly engaged. Rarely is there a quiet passage in this film without some sort of goofy effect whizzing by your head. Separation between all channels is top-notch, and sounds are placed in the rears with pinpoint accuracy. Imaging is just about transparent, which creates a considerable amount of force behind the listener. All in all, a very impressive mix.
Likely hoping to recoup at least some of their vast investment, Sony went all-out with the standard-def DVD release of 'Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.' The film's two-disc DVD was so packed with extras it was almost overwhelming. All of those features have been ported over here, and again the effect is the same -- after hours of learning about all the computer-generated effects and techniques used in the film, I honestly started to get a bit ill. CGI fanatics, however, should love this package.
First up: two screen-specific audio commentaries are included, the first with co-director Moto Sakakbara, sequence supervisor Hiroyuki Hayashida, sets and props lead artist Tatsuro Maruyama, and phantom supervisor Takoo Noguchi; and the second with animation director Andy Jones, editor Chris S. Capp, and staging director Tani Kunitake. Note that the first track is in Japanese only, but subtitled in either English and French -- this actually made it more fun, as I was able to pop on the subtitles, and at the same time listen to either the other commentary, or watch the film with its original audio. (Wouldn't it be cool if all commentaries, regardless of language, were subtitled like this?)
In terms of actual content, quite frankly this first track got rather monotonous. The second track is a bit better, and a bit more focused -- Jones, Capp and Kunitake seem to have a clearer idea of what they want to discuss and give a strong overview of the entire technical process. To be honest, neither track is something I probably would have subjected myself to if I didn't have to for this review -- these are for aspiring CGI artists and hardcore techno-geeks only.
More enjoyable for more casual viewers is the 30-minute interactive documentary "The Making Of 'Final Fantasy.'" It's a tad confusing at first, as the material is presented inside a window interface, and while you watch the doc, you can access additional content in a branching style. Not unlike that old 'Matrix'-style "follow the dead white rabbit" thingee, you can either hear optional audio commentary on key segments, or access seven additional "Character Files" (each 3 to 5 minutes).
Granted, this doc is also a bit bland if only because we've seen so many of these techniques already dissected on countless other DVD special editions. Also, with no really exciting story or "hook" (such as dinosaurs, Transformers, or what-have-you) it is hard to get terribly engrossed in this making-of material. Likewise, the "Character Files" are nicely done, but since we care little for anyone in the film, it's all pretty unmemorable.
Next are a wealth of vignettes and other short-form supplements. "Vehicle Scale Comparisons" offers 1-minute montages detailing three of the film's vehicles ("Bandit, "Black Boa" and "Quatro"). "Trailer Explorations" is a 5-minute look at the development of the film's trailers, which we rabid moviegoers know is often the most important step in marketing any movie (and in the case of 'Final Fantasy,' the previews were way better than the flick itself). Another 5 minutes is devoted to "The Gray Project," a montage with narration illustrating how various characters and environments were initially mocked and then built up. Then there is "Matte Explorations," an informative 6-minute interview with one of the unnamed effects artists, who illustrates how the mattes (i.e., background images) for two of the film's key sequences was created. Finally, "Compositing Builds" is pretty trippy -- a six-minute montage put together by someone who clearly did a lot of drugs while making the movie.
As our magical mystery tour nears its end, there is a collection of deleted material and outtakes. "More Boards/Blasts" is a 4-minute deleted scene presented as a mix of storyboards, concept art and near-complete renderings. Both the film's "Original Opening" (lackluster compared to the final version) and the full "Aki's Dream" opening sequence (an expanded version of the opening now seen in the film) run about 15 minutes combined. Finally, "Joke Outtakes" is a 4-minute reel of fake bloopers that are kinda funny, though they can't compare to all those great gags at the end of most Pixar films.
(Note that all of this material, while formatted for 16:9 screens, is presented in 480p/i/MPEG-2 video only.)
'Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within' may have been a dazzling technical achievement, but it's a failure as a story. Even fans of the video game series aren't likely to find much to love here, simply because there just aren't any characters to care about and root for.
This Blu-ray release, on the other hand, delivers on all other fronts -- the transfer is five-star, the audio is nearly as good, and there are hours and hours of supplements. Put it all together, and there's little to complain about here -- if you're a fan of the flick, this is a terrific disc.