The Spirits Within

Review by Michael Jacobson

Voices:  Ming-Na Wen, Alec Baldwin, Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi, Peri Gilpin, Donald Sutherland, James Woods, Keith David, Jean Simmons
Director:  Hironobu Sakaguchi
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  See Review
Length:  106 Minutes
Release Date:  October 23, 2001

“You’ve been telling me that death isn’t the end.  Don’t back out on me…

…now that I finally believe.”

Film ***1/2

Watching Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within gave me the closest feeling I’ve ever had to knowing what it must have been like for 1937 audiences to first see Snow White.

There have been computer animated features before, and some darn good ones.  But now, they are all toys, novelties, and footnotes.  Final Fantasy took four years to make and soaked up every available technology.  It was a gamble at some $140 million in costs, but no one can deny the enthralling results.

CGI human characters have never been rendered so lifelike.  Skin tones are even imperfect, with noticeable moles and spots.  The “camera” takes us so close to their faces that it’s impossible not to notice the craft.  Muscle tones are real, as are movements…the tendons on the back of the hand rippling, for example.  You CAN still tell that these are not human actors (most of the time), but I dare say there is not another step in between what was created here and completely realistic human renderings.

But people aren’t the only beneficiary of this attention to detail.  Inanimate objects like leather jackets have texture, react to light, and move with natural fluidity.  Camera simulations are so good, one shot has a background figure out of focus next to one in the foreground that’s sharp.  There are even instances where lights create “burns”, just like a real camera would!  Why such details, and would the picture have been better without them?  Maybe more “perfect”, but less real.  Final Fantasy is all about creating believable reality in the details, so that the fantastic aspects take on a true life of their own.

Some have criticized the storyline, but followers of the video game series will understand where it comes from.  The concept behind the world of Final Fantasy is an interpretation of spirituality.  There is a belief that all living things have spirits, and that includes planets.  Here, in the future of 2065, our own Earth has been wounded by a meteor containing strange alien life forms.  Humanity is almost wiped out, and those who are left live in big isolated shielded cities, looking for a way to rid the planet of its unwelcome and deadly visitors.

These visitors are spirits, and their ecosystem vast.  Some consume humans whole by drawing out their very life force; others infect like a virus, leaving little hope for their host.

One such host is Dr. Aki Ross (Wen), who has made the first breakthrough in the battle with the aliens.  She has found a way to contain the spirit virus within herself, though she cannot remove it, and it may be only a matter of time before the containment fails.  Her and her mentor, Dr. Sid (Sutherland), believe in the existence of Gaia, the great spirit of Earth, and feel the key to saving the planet is the collection of eight parts of this spirit and creating a new life force within it.

Opposed to the scientists is the militant General Hein (Woods), who believes the invading aliens must be destroyed forcefully.  He is commanding a newly commissioned weapon that he believes will eliminate the spirits at their source, and dismisses Aki and Sid’s assessment that these ectoplasmic beings cannot be physically eliminated.

With the aid of one-time lover Captain Gray Edwards (Baldwin) and his trusty bunch of Deep Eyes, Ryan (Rhames), Neil (Buscemi) and Jane (Gilpin), Aki and Sid race to collect the last remaining spirits while the countdown to the end of Earth is underway.

The story is simple, yes, but filled with the possibilities for visual wonders, which is why I think the script inspired the film’s incredible and revolutionary look.  It’s philosophic combination of ecology and new age rhetoric is hardly deep, but a world in which spirits can become separated and lost, and death is not the end, and planets themselves are living, breathing, healing organisms…well, that’s something worth taking to the drawing board.

Final Fantasy is more than the dawn of a new chapter in film animation…it is a blazing, burning sunrise that darkens everything that came before it.  It not only stirs the imagination, but fires it.  Much of the future of the art form will trace itself back to this film, and like those lucky souls for whom Snow White opened their eyes, we will be the new generation that glimpsed the future for the first time.

Video ****

For a film with a revolutionary new visual style, nothing but the best would do for DVD, and that’s what Columbia Tri Star has provided with this gorgeous and flawless anamorphic transfer.  Everything is right, from the colors, which are bright and vivid, yet natural, to the level of detail from foreground to background (the three dimensions are so convincingly rendered, we might as well refer to them as such).  Shot after shot, the screen is packed with information, and not one iota of it is distorted or lost in the mix.  The razor sharpness of every image is a testament to what DVD video is capable of.  Reference quality all the way!

Audio ****

Equally impressive is the dynamic and busy 5.1 audio track, which will give your sound system the best workout it’s had in a long time.  It will be flexing muscles you never knew it had.  All channels are wide open from start to finish, and whether it is music wide left and right, dialogue up the middle, or effects that flow fluidly and constantly from front to back and side to side, this is what digital audio was created for.  Even the subwoofer hardly rests…from the explosions to the low end of the score, to the humming of machines and life forms, the .1 channel delivers solidly.  A superior effort!

Features ****

You’re going to want to know everything about the making of this film, and this double disc set doesn’t disappoint.  There’s a lot, so let me try not to leave anything out…Disc One features two full length commentaries, one by members of the American team, and one by members of the Japanese team (with subtitles).  Both are worthy listens; detailed and informative, though the Americans are a bit more serious and the Japanese more relaxed and humorous.  There is also an isolated track of the terrific music score by Elliot Goldenthal, with his here-and-there commentary along the way.  There are storyboards with optional filmmaker commentary and subtitles “factoids”, production notes, and a number of trailers, including a teaser and theatrical one for this film, plus bonuses, including an intriguing look at an anime version of Metropolis.

Disc Two starts off with an amusing “behind the scenes” bit that ends up as the menu screen.  The half hour documentary is actually longer than it appears…throughout the program, pods pop up in the corner of the screen.  Select them, and you’ll be taken to link-outs for even more details.  They include Aki’s dream, character morphs, details on how many layers actually went into animating the faces, and more.  Also, watch out for a special audio button that appears from time to time…click on it for optional commentary when available.  

In addition, there are workshops showing character files, vehicle-scale comparisons, making the trailers, sets and props, plus a “shuffle” feature that allows the viewer to edit the conference room sequence from pre-created bits and play them back as you composed them.  There is also a funny "outtakes" reel (not all scenes are fully rendered, but enough for you to get the gist), an alternate opening sequence and plenty of DVD ROM extras.

Oh, and one of the best Easter eggs of the year, which isn’t hard to find.  It’s a thriller!


Final Fantasy is destined to be a landmark film, and it gets the red carpet treatment it deserves on a DVD that’s indicative of everything the medium should be.  This is a must-own.