I’m excited, are you excited?
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was Square’s big attempt to go multimedia. Their brand new “Square Pictures” logo proudly greets you after the Columbia Pictures one. Look at them. King of kings. Look upon their works. But it turns out I may have been wrong when I joked about TSW forcing Square to merge with Enix. I’ve since heard that that’s simply an urban legend, and that the two companies were going to merge to begin with, only for TSW to nearly scare Enix off! This had added consequences, as I’ve heard it convinced Square to suggest the new company should could milk all their franchises for easy money as a way to re-sweeten the pot, leading to the spinoff and sequel boom that played out almost uninterrupted for the next decade or so!
For full disclosure, technically this is another thing that Kyle and I have both seen… but only technically. We saw it in a theatre and everything! But while Kyle has owned the DVD for years, I haven’t seen it since, and over the decades, my memory of the thing blended with near-contemporary sci-fi films Titan A.E. (especially considering their common use of energy beings) and to a lesser extent, fellow near-contemporary Treasure Planet. But I’ve at least watched reviews of those two in recent years, staying away from reviews of TSW for Marathon reasons, so I think I’ve got my memories sorted. I should be able to remember TSW cleanly now! And with my memories sorted, I can happily say that I clearly remember TSW is about…… ah, shit, I don’t remember anything about this film.
Anyways, the movie started with Kyle and I having trouble activating the subtitles due to something or other that has changed about DVDs in the last close-to-twenty years. I’m not sure I would have mentioned that if it weren’t for the fact that the tech problems drew our attention to the subs, and I’ve just got to start there, because they are chunky as shit. The low-resolution needs of a home CRT set are here to greet you. The technical problems didn’t stop there (although most of them occurred while trying to gather screenshots after the fact), but enough about those! We’ve got an hour forty-five film to get through here and I’d better get started.
The film starts at a look at a wasteland, and then jumps briefly to the eyes of our protagonist, Dr. Aki Ross. Ross sees a sun rise above the rim of a nearby planetoid, possibly the planet to which this strange wasteland is only a moon, but one that seems far, far too close in any event. After the iconic, artsy trailer shot of Aki as seen through the earth as though the ground were water, something begins to shake in the distance, and she wakes from a dream.
It’s December 2065, in the future of the real world, a then-unusual setting idea for Final Fantasy that Square would half-do again by starting Final Fantasy Unlimited in the real world not long after this. We’re told the date by a machine that’s apparently been recording Aki’s dream, and she thinks in a monologue that she’s had this dream numerous times, asking “What are they trying to tell me?” Dr. Ross is voiced by Ming-Na Wen, whom I once called “the ideal Kingdom Hearts voice actor” for voicing both a central Final Fantasy protagonist and a central Disney protagonist, namely Mulan. She’s also known for years on ER, and yes, even as Chun-Li in the 1995 Street Fighter. Unfortunately, while TSW was an important step in the development of motion capture technology for film, TSW doesn’t seem to credit its mocap actors (its mocap technicians and director are credited, at least). This has happened so often even this early on that I’m running out of convenient one-word insults to comment on this screwjob practice. Cockweasels.
Aki informs us that some kind of apocalypse has hit the earth over thirty years ago, and the survivors live in barrier cities. She thinks her dreams will somehow save the earth, and she demonstrates this by spending half the film without even commenting on them while awake. Yeah, uh, this isn’t the film’s original opening, and carries the weight of excess revisions. For what it’s worth, the original is kind of a slog, and it spoils what’s a major reveal in the finished film, so I won’t be touching on it except to explain the problems with the current opening right here.
Aki heads to “Old New York City” without much an explanation to the audience. And say hello to Leela’s parents for me! She lands her ship in the middle of a street and begins searching for something with her futuristic devices, but every few steps, she fires a sort of flare gun into the sky, which showers the area with orange particles. Certainly no way to be stealthy, so we can presume it’s probably somehow required for her survival in this environment. We soon learn why, as she finds herself surrounded by strange figures that are seemingly invisible, and can only be seen because of the particles! She runs for cover.
Perhaps fortunately, Aki’s noisy search hasn’t just attracted monsters, and a military vehicle flies in and its occupants drop to the ground using a sort of green light that cushions their fall. There are four of these masked space marines, and they land and open fire on some of the monsters, killing one before ordering Aki to come with them. Because we’re given each marine’s name only one scene from now, I’m going to identify them now and save us the trouble. So strap yourselves in, it’s time for four credits in a row!
The fire team’s captain, Gray Edwards, is none other than Alec Baldwin, him of The Boss Baby, Thomas The Tank Engine & Friends, and the Mike Myers’ Cat in the Hat. Okay, okay, fine! He’s been in The Departed, Glengarry Glen Ross, and numerous other famous productions. Like The Adventures of Pluto Nash! Next up in the high-budget billing is Ving Rhames, he of Pulp Fiction, various Mission Impossible films, and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. Ack, fine, fine! I’ll stop! He was also on ER with Ming-Na Wen. Rhames’ character’s name is Ryan Whittaker. Steve Buscemi voices our next soldier, Neil Fleming. Reservoir Dogs, The Big Lebowski, even Wayne the werewolf from Hotel Transylvania. Our fourth and final voice is Peri Gilpin of Cheers and Frasier fame, who voices Jane Proudfoot. By the way, despite these characters being military, only Gray is ever addressed by his surname – everyone else only ever gets their first names in the film itself!
The arrival of another monster gives Aki the opportunity to get away from the arresting officers, and we get a brief insight to why our space marines are wearing helmets as Ryan is able to spot some of the monsters about to phase through a wall using his head’s up display. Gray manages to grab Aki, and asks what she’s doing. She insists she’s spotted a lifeform with her technology, and Gray counters that there hasn’t been any life out here in years. This line also marks our first serious break with the subtitles, which seem to be based on an older version of the script, or maybe just good old fashioned shitty subtitle work. This certainly isn’t a good thing – indeed, fuck ’em, show some damned respect to the viewers who need the subs – but for what it’s worth, TSW’s subtitles are never inaccurate, they’re just terser versions of the original text for whatever reason. The biggest change of plot consequence happens right here, in that that deaf viewers don’t learn the name of our monsters until a slightly later scene: Phantoms.
Aki manages to get away from him, and he gives up surprisingly easily, but more on that later. She eventually finds her life form at the foot of a statue: a plant. Apparently equipped with a plant-extracting device despite not knowing what she was coming for, Aki asks for cover and gets it when the Phantoms arrive. The group escapes up a staircase while calling back to their ship, but they’re separated from the captain at one point and he only narrowly escapes.
Back on the ship, Aki defends her right to be in the city, saying she has clearance. She and Gray debate the matter, Aki lashing out that she thinks the plant is somehow worth the lives of him and the other soldiers. Gray argues that she should have just asked for a military escort, raising the question of why she didn’t, and then he snaps that she hasn’t “changed a bit,” making her realize he’s an old associate. He unmasks and we learn his name, and Aki is no more thrilled at the reunion than him.
The group heads to New York, one of a handful of “barrier cities” left on earth, each protected by a force field. They head inside and are forced to go through decontamination and a scan. Aki gripes, saying she has clearance to get through without a scan, but Gray repeatedly insists she follow procedure. Unfortunately, when Gray steps into the scanner, they detect an abnormality, and it seems he came in contact with a Phantom, probably during his apparent near escape just before they evacuated. The technician (Dwight Schultz, probably best known as Star Trek recurring character Reginald Barclay, though we’ll be hearing from him again soon in FFX, XII and XIII) says that they only have minutes left, and insists Gray be sent to a “treatment center,” which Aki suggests is just a way of isolating him while he dies. She uses a code to get around the scanner and insists they bring Gray for an operation. She performs the operation herself, guiding some manner of Trauma Center-esque laser to eliminate the Phantom pathogens. The pathogens clinch my Trauma Center comparison by outright attempting to escape her at one point, and there’s some tension come from an ill-explained “treatment shield” that’s doomed to fail, but ultimately Aki succeeds and everything is fine. This sort of abstract, ill-explained tension is hard to pull off at even the best of times, I don’t really think it works here.
By the book, the technician insists Aki still be scanned after the fact, but she’s saved by the arrival of her superior, Dr. Sid. Yup, that’s his full name, “Dr. Sid,” we don’t even know if it’s first or last! This is Donald Sutherland, because of course it is. Invasion of the Body Snatcherrs, M*A*SH, The Hunger Games, you know.
………The Poky Little Puppy’s First Christmas.
Since this mostly clears us through the first act, I think I’m going to take this opportunity to talk a little about the 3D animation we’re seeing here. Square absolutely blew the bank on this thing, and while it looks mostly good today, twenty year-old tech is still twenty year-old tech. Mocap seems just a little stiff, clothing is even stiffer, skin looks awful by today’s standards, and most characters’ hair is just painted on. The only exception to the latter is Aki, the only person allowed to have anything but short hair, and even her hair isn’t actual strands most of the time (unless here and there) but rather an early soft-body model, with each section of her hair moving as a sort of flexible unit, despite attempts to look like real hair. It’s better more often than it’s not, but it goes to show how far technology has come that it’s lapped by, say, Kingsglaive in many regards, a mere side-project that didn’t come close to bankrupting anyone, by simple virtue of being released 15 years later!
Once they’re in private, Sid and Aki begin talking about “spirits” (Aki jokes that Sid used to insist they never use that word, and then they virtually never bother to use any other word for the rest of the film). The idea is that they’re trying to collect eight plot coupons they call “spirits” from around the world. This particular scene doesn’t explain what these are or why they’d want them, but we learn the plant is indeed the “sixth spirit” they’ve found, leaving only two.
Sid is a little upset about Aki drawing negative attention to their operation with her little stunt, so she tries to encourage him about his reputation by explaining that he’s the one who discovered how to create a barrier against the Phantoms, and also that that energy exists “in humans and every life form.” It’s a very “as you already know” sort of speech, truly forced and stilted. Sid produces a diary from his early days, which includes his thoughts on “Gaia,” which is basically just the Lifestream resurrection cycle from Final Fantasy VII, except with added emphasis on the planet itself being “alive.” This strong resemblance is one of the big complaints about this film that I’ve heard over the years, since it’s like reliving the events of FFVII, except with the serial numbers filed off. Sid then incinerates his diary so it can’t be used as evidence against him, since his religious-esque theories about “Gaia” are not considered solid science. Another complaint I’ve heard over the years (and am only understanding and contextualizing now that I’m seeing it) is that Sid seems to have kept this diary for decades just so he could burn it at a dramatic moment, instead of years ago when it first could have been used against him. Not a good scene, but mostly in ways others have covered to death, so I won’t make a fuss out of it. Anyways, Sid ends their conversation by recommending she not shack up with Gray again, which she was already not planning to do.
We cut to another of Aki’s dreams, where two armies of aliens that look like the Phantoms are charging at a group of (space?) ships. Now that we can get a good look at them, I’ll say they look a lot like the Metroid Prime’s Chozo, except with one arm heavier and thicker than the other (this does appear to be some kind of weapon, but they also have them as energy-beings that otherwise appear to be naked, so…?). Nothing else happens here.
We cut to a council chamber, where General Hein (yes, named after the skeleton-man from FFIII) is making an angry presentation to the local government. Hein is voiced by James Woods, also known to Square fans as Hades from Disney’s Hercules and like nearly every Kingdom Hearts. It seems Hein is hoping to use an orbital cannon called “Zeus” to destroy a meteor that crashed into Earth and is supposedly the source of the Phantoms. The council (one of them voiced by Keith David, Goliath from Gargoyles, and another by the late and legendary Jean Simmons, Guys and Dolls), despite already authorizing what must have been months or years of construction on Zeus, is hesitant about actually using the thing, which is utterly bizarre. Are they a different cohort of electees than the ones who authorized the construction, or what? But in any event, here’s Dr. Sid with a years-belated counterargument to this project that has no doubt consumed unparalleled resources and time.
Sid’s problem is that every time they’ve tried to attack the meteor in the past, fresh Phantoms have woken “from hibernation” and shown up after the old, digging deeper into the planet’s crust every single time, a pattern that Sid compares to the behaviour of Phantom particles in a human body. Sid relates that making the surgical lasers stronger just ends up damaging the patient, and that’s why he doesn’t want them to use Zeus. It doesn’t take the council long to realize he’s actually talking about hurting or killing Gaia, instantly discrediting him. Sid decides to stay the course, ordering Aki to stay quiet.
Hein starts to argue with Sid, trying to turn his argument into a Scopes trial laugh, which I’m sure is the intended comparison. It doesn’t help that Sid doesn’t really have answers for anyone’s questions, especially Jean Simmons’ character’s point that it might be better to fire the cannon anyways, and damn a potential harm to the Gaia. Sid decides to reveal the plan he’s been working on with Aki as an alternative, and it actually seems to make sense within the framework of the setting: basically, he wants to create a “wave” that’s opposite to the Phantom’s energy to cancel the Phantoms out, the specifics being rooted in some sort of data he needs to find in the Spirits. Despite what seems like a sound argument as these sorts of fantasy, soft-sci fi concepts go (we’ve established that Sid’s the expert on the Phantoms and their “energy” and “waves”), Hein begins to talk about how it’s “touchy-feely” to rescue plants and animals to build this wave. Frankly, I feel that this part of the speech, the whole Scopes trial thing with added environmentalism, undermines Hein’s character for the entire film, which is a serious damage. It turns what might have been an interesting antagonist – and we’ll get into that later, though the fact that I have to wait as long as I do is another writing problem for the character – into a Captain Planet villain, an 80s business tycoon bulldozing a forest to build a mall, complete with slicked-back 80s hair.
Hein claims there’s no solid evidence that the “wave” will work, even though it seems like Sid already proved that through his years of experience and the seemingly-sound gloss he just gave, and Aki stands up and declares that there is evidence. She says they’ve used the wave to seal Phantom particles inside of a patient, which sounds basically like the barrier they’re already using to keep Phantoms out of their cities, which you’d think would be more than proof enough? In any event, Aki reveals that she’s the patient, and that she has a monitoring device on her chest that can project a hologram of her parasite for everyone to see. I like the guy in the background of this shot, who’s directly behind Aki and can be seen trying to lean past her to see the hologram and failing (below, left).
After the meeting, Sid says this is bad, but Aki says she’s dying too fast to worry about this kind of crap, and that she’d need luck to find the spirits before the particles kill her. Sid says, “I’ll be damned if you’re going to die before me!” spawning a movie’s long series of in-jokes about Sid dropping dead at the slightest impact. Hey, he’s the mentor character, that’s the rules! Goodbye already, Sid!