Films based on video games are rather strange. While other forms of art like books, plays, and television shows have had an easy time getting successfully adapted for the screen, video games have had somewhat of a bumpy road. For the longest time, films that were inspired or based on a video game were usually overwhelming panned by critics with films like the original "Super Mario Bros.", "Mortal Kombat: Annihilation", "Alone in the Dark", and "Assassin's Creed" leaving a sour taste in the mouths of both fans and film critics alike. Nowadays, it seems like Hollywood has gotten a grasp on them from the likes of the "Sonic the Hedgehog" films, "Detective Pikachu", and "The Angry Birds Movie 2" which are overall fun and worthwhile popcorn films. And then there's something like "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within". Released in 2001, this film was inspired by the famed RPG series "Final Fantasy" and ended up becoming a massive box office bomb that almost bankrupted its game developer Square due to its heavy budget while not impressing a lot of filmgoers. Having finally seen it, I can say this film isn't a disaster like other bad video game movies but it isn't an example of what I'd call a great one either. It's an overall mixed-bag film.
In the year 2065, a group of aliens known as Phantoms infested Earth and damaged human life as the creatures are known for sucking out human spirits and killing them instantly. Humans have been at war with these creatures and have been trying to figure out a solution to save the planet. A group of scientists led by Dr. Aki Ross (Ming-Na Wen) and her guide Sid (Donald Sutherland) have been trying to gather spirits around the Earth in hopes that collecting eight certain ones can unleash a wave that can eradicate the aliens and save the planet. However, the military led by General Douglas Hein (James Woods) rather wants to use a cannon in outer space called the Zeus that will send lasers to Earth in hopes to destroy the creatures and has battled the scientists doubtful that the spirits can help. Wanting to prove her theory correct, Aki goes to other parts of the planet alongside a group of soldiers called the Deep Eyes consisting of Captain Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin), Master Sergeant Ryan Whittaker (Ving Rhames), pilot and soldier Neil Fleming (Steve Buscemi) and Corporal Jane Proudfoot (Peri Gilpin) to find the last few spirits before the situation with the Phantoms gets worse.
This is a film that did have me split as I was watching it. It seems to have some of the right puzzle pieces, but it's a film where the execution isn't as great as it could be. It's a shame because I do think there are elements in this film that are very good and even great at times, but it just didn't come fully together like I think it should which left me feeling rather conflicted by the end. I think the story in this film is probably what has the most problems for me. For what it's worth, I do think the premise itself is great with the war of the phantoms against humans. While it has been done before, I think it's a premise that does have a lot of uniqueness to it and has a lot of interesting ideas and themes that are very well handled. It even starts on a pretty promising note as we see Aki scavenge through an abandoned Times Square in New York City for one of the spirits that did have me curious and invested. Unfortunately, the themes of the film seemed to have more thought put into the film than the story itself. The film was directed by Hironobu Sakaguchi who wrote and directed the "Final Fantasy" games of the time which included the much-lauded fourth, sixth, and seventh installments of the franchise and while I have great respect for Sakaguchi as a game developer and all he's done for the art of video games, I don't think he makes the jump from video games to films very well since his film direction is rather poor. Most of the problem comes down to the action scenes that felt very tensionless and stale rather than exciting and riveting. There are a lot of large set pieces including a scene where Aki and the Deep Eyes have to escape from the human base in New York City after the Phantoms breach the barrier shields and the scene should be fun and exciting, but it doesn't. It just feels dull to watch as if I were watching a video game cutscene rather than an actual film.
It also doesn't help that Elliot Goldenthal's score is also boring and minute rather than filled with energy as it should be in other action films. The film eventually builds to an anticlimactic ending that did me wanting more by the end and a proper resolution that all just left me feeling empty. As far as the animation goes, it's easily the best part of the film. Most of the $137 million budget went into the computer animation which used motion capture technology that would later be used in films like "The Polar Express" and "The Adventures of Tintin" all while trying to push the limits of photorealism at the time and it does look rather good for the time. The sets of the film still look pretty remarkable, particularly the futuristic New York City and I even think the ghost-like designs of the Phantom are quite interesting. I do think that the animation of the humans does somewhat look okay even if there are some shots where they can appear uncanny and the lip movement on some of the characters really looked off. I will say that the designs of the characters themselves looked decent, but I did think some of them suffered due to them not matching their voice actors. While I thought Na-Wen and Sutherland's voices fit very well, other characters' voices stood out very badly. The worst offender was easily Neil Fleming as his character design did not match Steve Buscemi's voice at all. Hearing his voice come out of a character like him was so distracting and I think that either some of these roles should've been recast or these characters should've been redesigned. Speaking of the characters, most of them do feel a bit flat. I do like the character of Aki Ross and her quest to find the spirits, especially when it's revealed that she was infected by a Phantom and is slowly dying which hastens the race and even though I bagged on his design, I did like Neil as he got some funny laughs as the comic relief partially when the city's emergency message blares telling them to proceed to the nearest evacuation facility to which he replies to the crew "I think we should proceed to the nearest evacuation facility." It's a silly joke, but it made me laugh. The other characters though are thin. I didn't really care much for Gray and didn't feel any romantic chemistry between him and Aki while the other members of the crew seemed disposable. I also found Dr. Sid and General Hein boring archetypes of the mentor and stubborn general though the voices of Sutherland and Woods did elevate them a bit. Otherwise, I didn't have much reason to care for them.
"Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" is an overall mixed bag of a video game film. The story has some interesting ideas and a good premise but suffers due to poor direction, the animation is mostly impressive but it suffers from some mismatched character designs and uncanny moments, and the characters are mostly boring and not fully fleshed. I certainly wouldn't call this a bad animated film by any means, but it's not a film that I can fully recommend either due to how boring it can be at times. While the "Final Fantasy" games have left a deeper impact on the public, this film is sadly mostly spiritually empty.