A Look Back at the Folly of ‘Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within’

The video game movie was a box office bomb for Square, and a disaster for the Final Fantasy franchise. But could history repeat with 'Final Fantasy XV'?

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Jul 7 2016, 6:26pm

A still from 'Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within,' showing the moment Aki finds the sixth spirit, a weed growing from the dust of a ruined New York City.

Fifteen years ago this month, movie-goers, presumably those with a penchant for playing role-playing video games in their spare time, were invited to "enter a new dimension, beyond all you imagine, where fantasy becomes reality." Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was a mega-budget animated movie (very) loosely based on a long-running gaming series that had, at the time, sold 33 million units worldwide. It was the debut feature from Japanese games developer/publisher Square's Honolulu-based film studio, Square Pictures. And, as it turned out, its last, as the movie tanked.

A largely negative critical reception to The Spirits Within; disappointment from core Final Fantasy fans regarding its complete departure from the series's magic and materia, chocobos, and dudes with stupidly proportioned swords; and the film's failure to see a box office return on its costs of £137 million [$177 million] equalled a stinker. Distributor Columbia Pictures hadn't put out an animated feature since 1986's second Care Bears movie, which had received a mauling from reviewers; 15 years on, history repeated, with the Washington Post calling The Spirits Within "bewildering and trite," LA Weekly concluding that it was "soulless," and the New York Post criticizing its "predictable, nonsensical plot" and "laughably lame dialogue." Square Pictures was absorbed into Square Enix in the movie's aftermath, and the studio left with nowhere else to go after such a categorical box office bomb.

But was the movie really so bad? I've watched it twice in as many days, to see if those critiques hold up. My verdict: Sure they do. The Spirits Within is a diabolically written movie. If the story that it tells had been a video game, at least the instances of interactive action would have kept the plot moving with some compelling beats. As a sit-down experience, hands left idle, it's a cavalcade of unanswered questions, a raft of too-quick conclusions drawn without any context, a heap of general that-makes-no-sense-whatsoever ridiculousness, with everything topped by an ending that just happens without any real feeling of conclusiveness.

The story goes that strange, alien "phantoms" arrived on Earth, on a meteor, decades before the beginning of the movie, which is set in 2065. This is the same Earth we know, not some alternative version of it, a "Gaia" planet, as seen in Final Fantasy VI and VII; there is no obvious magic, no gigantic Eidolons or Aeons to summon. These phantoms are typically invisible to the human eye, visible only by using a flare-gun-like device or when they consume "bio-etheric" energy. But on contact with physical life forms, they steal away the "spirit" of the living being, absorbing it. And they do this with attuned belligerence, working together to surround human soldiers, who use limited weaponry against their often-unseen enemy, and leaving their bodies slumped, still, empty. The film offers no explanation as to why these ghosts, which typically appear as humanoid forms with tentacled limbs and elongated probosces, actively engage humans. We're just left to assume that they're the bad guys.

Except, obviously, they're not the real bad guys. That's us, you and me, humankind. Our long-waged war against our own planet has scarred it terribly. The phantoms might have wiped out so many of Earth's cities—people now live behind special barriers, which magically keep the ghosts out, because science-fiction—but really, we had this coming, with or without their intervention. And there are a handful of scientific types in the movie, foremost among them Dr. Aki Ross and her mentor, Dr. Sid (and that's the first connection with the Final Fantasy series at large, albeit with an "S" rather than a "C"), who believe that in damaging the planet, we have also damaged its spirit, Gaia (and there's the second tie to the games before the movie, with The Spirits Within's subterranean turquoise Gaia energy a ringer for FFVII's Lifestream).

Aki in one of the film's dream sequences, in which she finds herself on the phantoms' home world

Cut to the chase: the leading real bad guy of the movie, the James Woods–voiced Hein (a third wider franchise nod, as there's an antagonistic character of the same name in Final Fantasy III), wants to use a massive space station laser gun to obliterate the crashed-in-Africa meteor which, he thinks, will do away with the phantom menace (if only it were so simple, eh Star Wars fans?). Aki and Sid really don't want this to happen; they believe in something called "wave theory," which posits that all living beings—and that includes the invaders—are connected by related spirit energy. They want to collect eight different spirit signatures from eight different life forms—why eight is never explained, just go with it—to complete a wave form that should, as if by magic, neutralize the phantom signatures and they'll all just disappear. Look, I know, it's pure poppycock. This is back-of-the-beermat stuff that went through something like 50 rewrites and still didn't come out anything like coherent.

Skipping ahead again, with a spoiler alert (like it's needed): Real bad guy Hein gets to use the massive space station laser gun at the end, but it overheats and explodes in orbit, killing him (and presumably a staff of hundreds, but never mind about them, because this isn't their story). Meanwhile, in Africa, Aki's theory proves correct and all of the ghostly aggressors turn a brilliant bright blue and fuck off back into space. To where, who knows, as earlier on we learned that their home planet blew up, hence this chunk of it landing on Earth, carrying with it all of the spirits. Her success comes at the expense of her love interest—shed no tears, Alec Baldwin phones it in as the couldn't-be-more-generic space marine sort Gray Edwards—but it's still a happy ending as the gooey message of all life as we know it, across the stars, being linked together is delivered with the subtlety of a breezeblock to the softest and most sensitive areas of your body.

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One hundred and thirty seven million pounds. That's more than the budget of the first Tomb Raider movie, which came out the same summer (and made substantially more money, over double its costs). It's more than twice the budget of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's DOOM of 2005. It's very nearly as much as the overall spend on Final Fantasy VII, although an amazing 100 million US dollars was spent on marketing the story of Cloud and Sephiroth and that one that gets stabbed by said main meanie and we all cried a bit.

One hundred and thirty seven million pounds, and Square Pictures couldn't get a story together worth the tiniest fraction of that spend. Anyone who'd played one Final Fantasy game, had watched Aliens and some Star Trek maybe, and owned a pen with enough ink to last a few hours could have come out with this script in an afternoon. When Donald Sutherland's Sid remarks to Gray, "You don't have to understand," I'm right there with him; likewise later when Steve Buscemi's Neil Fleming wonders, "What if it's all a bunch of mumbo jumbo?" Neil, Neil. My man, my man. Speaking my language.

So where'd all the money go? It was right there, on the screen, staring viewers in the face. Hell, it still is, and does. The visuals in The Spirits Within, even when compared to what we see today in cutscenes on PS4s and the like, are still pretty stunning. The opening-sequence macro shots of Aki's eye don't come close (in my opinion, versus other CGI movies) to tumbling into any uncanny valley. The guns and the vehicles of the world are all believably realized. Some lip-synching is out, but generally speaking, the aesthetics of the production, and that extends to Elliot Goldenthal's terrific score, never let it down. When Roger Ebert called The Spirits Within a "technical milestone," he was right, and unlike a picture like The Polar Express, which came out three years later, I feel no unease when watching these digital marionettes interacting with one another in the light of 2016.

Gray battles one of the movie's larger phantoms, as the ghostly beings break into New York's barrier-guarded city.

So, technically, The Spirits Within was a true original, breaking new ground, albeit at an incredible cost. Production on the movie took four years, with Square Pictures employing a staff of around 200 people. Combining everyone's efforts, the movie's 1,327 shots, its 141,964 frames, took 120 "person-years" to complete. Square's render farm consisted of 960 Pentium III workstations, and every frame took an average of 90 minutes to finish. Each character's base model was made up of more than 100,000 polygons, with three times that amount used in the creation of clothing. No photography was used in the final film—all of the backgrounds are matte paintings.

An insert within the special-edition DVD of the film that own—I bought it in one of those three-for-a-few-buck deals at a closing-down Blockbuster in Crouch End; call it a pity-buy if you like—quotes the movie's director, Final Fantasy series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, a man who'd never made a film before this one, and hasn't since. "I have always wanted to create a new form of entertainment that fuses the technical wizardry of interactive games with the sensational visual effects of motion pictures." Note: no mention made of writing a sensible, particularly original, or even sort of good story to go with the spectacle.

A (slightly misleading) trailer for 'Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within'

Perhaps, though, the movie's makers figured that didn't matter so much. It's not like the stories told in the Final Fantasy games were of a consistently amazing standard, if we're honest. But then, they also weren't squeezed into less than two hours of painfully explained exposition; those stories had time to unfold, to connect with the player on the his or her terms. The Spirits Within bludgeons its audience with straight-faced elucidation until an overwhelming numbness sets in and you just don't care anymore. For Square Pictures, the thinking must have been that Final Fantasy's popularity would have been enough to see a return on its spend. The most recent games bearing the name had seen fantastic commercial success. 1999's Final Fantasy VIII grossed $50 million after 13 weeks, making it the fastest-selling entry in the series. Two years earlier, Final Fantasy VII had sold over two million copies in three days on sale, just in Japan. The Spirits Within's release would near enough coincide with Final Fantasy X, which was naturally expected to continue this trend—and the signs were certainly positive, with the game's 1.4 million pre-orders a then-record.

It made sense, then, for Square Pictures to go big—on the movie itself and the studio facilities, which cost a cool $45 million. But with so little of what made the script's final cut convincingly adding up, and that aforementioned ignoring of the franchise's core character and narrative archetypes, it simply didn't connect with the fanbase it was squarely aimed at (oh, accidental puns, why do you haunt me so?), and punters without any previous experience of anything Final Fantasy simply saw an impressive technical achievement let down by afterthought storytelling. So, Aki dreams that she knows how the phantoms arrived on Earth, and that's just taken as fact? Okay, sure. Heim's seriously pissed at these ghosts for killing his family—but surely almost everyone in the film's lost loved ones to an invisible enemy? With his emotions wrecking his ability to operate objectively, Heim should have been stripped of his position. But no, sure, let's leave him access to the space laser, and control of the New York barrier city's defensive shield and, oh dear, you've really gone and fucked it.

Some of Gray's colleagues wonder what the fuck they have to do to get out of this movie. (Well, they all die, as it turns out. Oops, spoilers.)

The more you pick at the story of The Spirits Within, the more terrible it reveals itself to be. Apparently there was once going to be a character called Meg in it, a terminally ill seven-year-old who also happened to be one of the eight spirits. She's mentioned in a monologue of sorts by Aki, not by name but by situation, and I wonder how much more emotionally invested in this story viewers might have been if we'd seen, and known, more about how the spirits connect with one another. If we'd known how this brave little girl, who "told me that she was ready to die... and that I didn't have to make up stories to make her feel better," didn't believe Aki's theory, but that she was still "ready to die," even so young. That sounds like a powerful, memorable character, the kind that this film really needed more of.

The Spirits Within wasn't the last Final Fantasy movie—Advent Children followed it in 2005, furthering the story started by Final Fantasy VII, and this year another feature-length animation is coming out, Kingsglaive, which connects directly to the events that we'll play through in Final Fantasy XV. Like The Spirits Within before it, Kingsglaive features a cast of well-known television and film actors—Aaron Paul, Sean Bean, Lena Headey—and looks sublime. It is, however, part of a lot of supporting media surrounding its parent game, the cost of which must be astronomical. In addition to Kingsglaive, there is a five-part anime series, Brotherhood; a tie-in mobile title called Justice Monsters Five; a VR-compatible shooter set around what looks like "Episode Duscae"'s behemoth battle, showcased at E3 2016 (and poorly received by just about everyone who tried it); and A King's Tale, a retro-looking bonus beat-'em-up exclusive to certain retailers.

You're only right to ask: Hasn't Square learned from The Spirits Within? At a press conference for Final Fantasy XV in Los Angeles earlier this year, the game's director, Hajime Tabata, was asked by Kotaku UK editor Keza MacDonald just how many copies it'd need to sell to cover its costs. "Ten million" was his immediate reply. No further clarification was given—I know this, as I was sat right next to Keza when she posed the question. Square later released a statement, saying Tabata's 10 million was a "personal goal" and not the amount necessary to pay back what the studio had put in. (They're not giving away that information.) But with Final Fantasy VII, the biggest seller in the entire series, shifting around 11 million copies over its lifetime, for Final Fantasy XV to reach a number close to that is incredibly unlikely. Will that leave Square in the hole again, with another Final Fantasy financial disaster on its hands?

I don't know. I hope the game does well. I think it looks great, and I've enjoyed both of the playable previews that have come out so far, "Episode Duscae" and this spring's "Platinum Demo." But I also know plenty of people who haven't, who aren't feeling Final Fantasy XV at all—some of them because it, just as The Spirits Within did, is stepping away from a number of series-consistent elements, such as turn-based combat. Like Square Pictures' ill-fated movie of 15 years ago, there's an awful lot riding on the success of a production that is markedly different from the projects that have traditionally delivered Final Fantasy its greatest profits. The film's failure could yet prove prophetic, as another spectacularly stylish entry in the franchise's history looms, threatening to have little impact on an audience finding no relatable substance beneath its attractive surface.

Follow Mike Diver on Twitter.

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