Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
Directed By: Hironobu Sakaguchi, Moto Sakakibara
A movie based on Final Fantasy? When it was originally announced, the world agreed that it seemed like a great idea -- the FF video game series is one of the most cinematic and textually rich franchises ever to emerge for a little plastic video console -- and a horrid, deplorable idea all at the same time. After all, when was the last time you saw a good videogame-to-film conversion? And don't say Mortal Kombat or Double Dragon -- sticking up for movies like that doesn't assert their quality, it simply undermines your own credibility. Add to that the fact that Final Fantasy spin-offs, with the exception of Final Fantasy Tactics?, never turn out to be particularly worthwhile and you've just sowed the seeds of misgivings aplenty.
So the resulting film effort, overseen by series guru Hironobu Sakaguchi, had the potential to occupy a vast range of quality, being at best the Tactics or Seiken Densetsu of gaming movies... or at worst, the Final Fantasy Mystic Quest or Ergheiz?.
In reality the finished product is more like the Chocobo Racing? of sci-fi: a safe, formulaic experience based on countless titles which have come before, but with the marketable addition of classic Final Fantasy-ness. But it's also an invaluable asset for FF fans, because it provides a vivid insight into the future of the series.
First and foremost, The Spirits Within clearly represents the triumph of graphics and story over gameplay. While critics have been declaring gameplay dead in the Final Fantasy series for quite some time, this is definitely the first time any FF has featured such a small proportion of gameplay to exposition. To be honest, I never really felt like I was in control -- the plot always dragged me along to the next scene or situation without giving me time to explore the world with a little more depth. Heck, by the time things slowed down enough to let me question NPCs about the game world, most of them were dead. And while the battle engine is fantastic (the new approach to Active-Time Battles makes it truly seem like they're taking place in real time, and the random encounter rate is incredibly low), I'm still not convinced that my button presses had any real effect over the on-screen action. Bad enough that I had to bring my own dual analog controller along to the theatre -- you'd think Square didn't even care about interactivity any more. Plus the game is incredibly short: less than two hours from beginning to end, a length which makes Metal Gear Solid look like the unedited version of Koyanisquaatsi. And let's not even get into the utter lack of challenge in play here - I made it from start to finish in one sitting without ever seeing the game over screen.
Which isn't to say The Spirits Wihin has a well-balanced battle system, despite its linearity and overwhelming simplicity. On the contrary, the heroes are constantly overwhelmed by enemy forces which massively overpower them; even more aggravatingly, single-hit kills are the order of the day. If you thought Edea and her habit of flinging Death spells about was annoying, wait until you go up against foes with whom the slightest physical contact equals instant Doom. If not for utter deus ex machina saves, it's unlikely any of the battles would end in victory. Not that it really matters -- there seems to be nothing even resembling leveling up involved here. I couldn't tell any actual differences between the characters' skills at the end of the game in comparison to their starting states. After the immense customization allowed by recent games, the fact that all characters appear to occupy one of only two character classes (a Laguna-style machine gun troop or a weakling scientist) and possess practically no special skills whatsoever makes for some limiting gameplay. And don't even look for magic; for the first time ever, there's nothing resembling spells involved, let alone the series-standard summons which typically play a huge role in the games. In fact, variants of summoned beasts effectively serve as the main "villains" of the piece, with a water-deficient Leviathan taking the lead in many scene. A huge and disappointing turn of events, as many people see those elements as vital to the Final Fantasy franchise.
As one might expect where eidelons are involved in an FF game, the graphics are phenomenal throughout (although as usual the attack animations often seem to drag repetitively). In fact, it's impossible to determine where the prerendered cinemas end and the real-time stuff begins. Admittedly, part of that results from the terrible interaction feedback mentioned above, but Square's graphic wizzes deserve credit for mastering the fine art of computer rendering to a degree never before seen. Of course it should be noted that thousands of angry, screaming fanboys would be more than willing to point out the fact that this advance in graphics comes at the expense of story depth. And, whiny as they may be, there's some credence to their complaints -- the characters are rather shallow and the plot is pretty hokey when it comes down to brass tacks, full of cheesy meta-mystical nonsense that only the most shameless of nerds would comprehend.
But if there's a real gripe with the story, it's that we've already seen the entire thing in the other FF games. Seeking to protect the life energy of the planet from a deadly alien menace? Hello Final Fantasy VII! Mysterious dream sequences that reveal secrets of the plot? So that's the reason Aki Ross looks like Laguna Loire! And collecting magical doodads from around the world for professor Sid's latest wacky experiment is so deeply ingrained in the Final Fantasy ethos as to be inextricable. The tough-as-nails female space marine with a humorless commander, whose allies are a cool-headed black dude and a sardonic whiner? That's pure FF... oh wait, Aliens wasn't a Final Fantasy game.
The human "enemy," General Hein, is even less original, being nothing more than a palette-swapped Seifer Almassy into whose head has been transplanted the brain of Rufus Shinra - he even has his very own orbital Mako Cannon. The dialogue, while certainly more coherent than the translation for FFVII, won't be giving Vagrant Story? a run for Best Script any time soon. And I could be mistaken, but I think Square missed a great opportunity to recycle "Eyes on Me" during the zero-G love scene. It certainly would have been an improvement over L'Arc En Ciel's usual atrocious noise which comprised the closing theme.
Still, I went to Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within expecting a Legend of Dragoon?-scale disaster and was pleasantly surprised when my sensibilities were nowhere nearly so viciously annihilated. I don't pretend this FF title will be supplanting FFV or FFVIII as my favorites, but at least the dialogue was more coherent than FFIV's, and the graphics were far better than FFIX's grainy garbage. Square has given us much more enjoyable experiences than this, but as the cheapest FF yet (I paid $5.75), the entrance fee is quite reasonable.
Anyway, I need to hit the theatres again. I've heard that if you make it through the hangar scene with all your party members intact, you can unlock a secret ending in which Aki wears her Maxim bikini. Square really does love us.
Final Fantasy has been around for many years and has produced many sequels. The irony of a game called "final" fantasy spawning so many offshoots is an irony which many people like to point out, mistakenly thinking themselves clever and original. It's all very sad.
Final Fantasy: Four warriors put themselves out a job by saving the world 2000 years before they were born. There are plenty of stupid things that can be done with time travel paradoxes, but making oneself obsolete ranks near the top.
Final Fantasy II & III: These games were never released in America originally, so even if they exist they're probably not all that good.
Final Fantasy IV: A dark knight seeks redemption, braving a trip to the moon and indecipherably bad grammar. In the newer remakes, Cecil's language skills have been improved, making his quest seem that much less courageous.
Final Fantasy V: A man with an embarrassing name (Butz in Japanese, Bartz in English) saves the world from a very angry tree. Features the Job System, which encourages children to go through life with no loyalty to their employers; this game was briefly banned as "harmful to the Japanese way of life."
Final Fantasy VI: A cast of thousands saves the world from a very angry clown by massively exploiting and abusing game features and bugs. Many people stopped enjoying video games after playing FFVI, closing their minds to the possibility that better games could be made. Scary indeed.
Final Fantasy VII: See review in main column.
Final Fantasy VIII: A very taciturn young man saves the world from someone trying to exploit the time travel trick in FFI for her own gain despite the fact that he doesn't wanna save the stupid ol' world. Tragically, his social isolation causes him to lack the good judgment not which would have prevented his falling in love with the world's most annoying and childish woman.
Final Fantasy IX: See FF I-VIII.
Final Fantasy X: The story of a young Okinawan with no fashion sense as he saves the world by dying his hair light and hanging out in Akihabara buying trendy video game systems.
Final Fantasy XI: The ongoing adventures of people who would rather powerlevel than do anything productive with their lives.
Final Fantasy XII: Theoretically to be released this year. We'll see. Either way, it's going to piss off a hell of a lot of people.