Transparent, orange aliens rise out of a crater. They have just been attacked with a powerful weapon from space and are struggling for survival, clawing their way out. Animals that at once seem both huge and effervescent, they move through the world in a way that fascinates. Watching this scene, you can start to see why the movie’s creators thought they had the next Snow White on their hands.
The first and last feature film from Square Pictures, a division of the video game company known only at the time as Square, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is a movie that made history in more ways than one. It fits comfortably alongside other gigantic Hollywood flops like 1980’s Heaven’s Gate in that its failure was enough for its owners to get out of the movie business altogether. But 20 years later, this movie stands out in ways that are still surprising.
The Spirits Within is the vision of Hironobu Sakaguchi, who directed the first five games in the Final Fantasy series from 1988 through 1992. The franchise became known for bucking storytelling conventions of video games at the time to great success, reviews looking back at this era note that games like Final Fantasy IV “pioneered the whole concept of dramatic storytelling in an RPG.” Sakaguchi moved through the ranks in Square, producing and helping to develop the game that broke Final Fantasy out to mainstream Western audiences, Final Fantasy VII.
After FF7’s commercial and critical acclaim, rival video game companies became less interesting to Sakaguchi. Speaking to the LA Times before the release of The Spirits Within, Sakaguchi said that after the game’s release, he saw Square challenging movie studios like Pixar and Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light and Magic. “But in order to push the technology, I had to challenge it with something,” he said. “The challenge at the time was to make realistic human characters in a feature film with 100-plus minutes of computer-generated animation.”
Square thought the challenge was worth meeting. So in 1997, it bought a large complex in downtown Honolulu and turned it into a movie studio. At its peak, 250 people worked on The Spirits Within. The first eighteen months of the studio’s creation were entirely focused on developing technical products in-house. After that, Square spent three years animating characters frame-by-frame.
At the center of the story is Dr. Aki Ross, voiced by Ming-Na Wen, now of Mandalorian fame. Ross wasn’t just a character in The Spirits Within, Square had visions of full-on stardom for their creation. In the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, virtual women were a trend. The New York Times praised Aki Ross as having “the sinewy efficiency of Sigourney Weaver in Alien and the curves of Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich.” Maxim put a bikini-clad Ross in its Hot 100.
The Spirits Within moves far away from any Final Fantasy game, without a Chocobo or turn-based fight in sight. Rather, the game focuses on Ross working with a military unit known as Ghost Eyes (composed of Alec Baldwin, Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, and Peri Gilpin) and her mentor Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) to figure out a peaceful way to return to the cities of Earth that have been made uninhabitable by aliens called Phantoms. Opposing them is James Woods, who wants to fire a giant laser at them over and over again.
Roger Ebert, who would emerge as one of the movie’s few champions, dismissed the movie’s plot as “merely the carrier for the movie's vision.” The real reason to see the movie, he argued was “simply, gloriously, to look at it.” And 20 years later, it’s hard to argue with that. Computer-generated art that is meant to look realistic has a tendency to age poorly, considering that more powerful computers are always around the corner. But The Spirits Within still looks surprisingly good. Details like Aki’s hair, comprising 60,000 computer-generated strands and reportedly taking up to 20 percent of the company's computer resources, truly pay off.
It’s not perfect. Snow White, the cel-animation progenitor that Spirit Within’s producers were quick to compare their movie with, had a simple story filled out with songs. Using a well-known fable for plot, Snow White’s creators were able to focus the gorgeous visuals first and foremost. Spirit Within can get lost in itself. Final Fantasy games have the advantage of moving at the player’s speed, but the cinematic can feel akin to getting carted around. One-liners that a player can groan over and move past, or might enjoy clicking through, don’t land like the movie thinks they will. It’s also confusing that Alec Baldwin’s character looks exactly like Ben Affleck.
The Spirits Within didn’t just want to be a great animated movie. It wanted animation to become equal with live-action stars that could appeal to everyone. Aki could be an empowering figure for women in the movie itself, and then earn the favor of teenage boys with Maxim covers and special photoshoots made for the DVD.
The Spirits Within ended up confusing audiences more than anything, and the movie cost Square nearly $100 million. The box office was so terrible that it threatened to halt talks on an ongoing potential merger Square was working on with another company, Enix. It also ultimately resulted in Sakaguchi’s departure to form his own games company, Mistwalker, in 2004.
But to experience The Spirits Within 20 years later is to be struck by the audacity of its creators, convinced that their movie was, to quote Ebert’s review, “in a category of its own, the first citizen of the new world of cyberfilm.” It wasn’t quite that, but it’s fascinating to watch them try.
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is streaming now on Amazon Prime.