Re-watching Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

It had been ten years since I saw this movie last time. It was at the Cinema in Ystad, Sweden, 2001. Like everyone else I was expecting a great movie closely related to the Final fantasy franchise. The two projects had the same father and shared the same name. Of course the movie was greatly related to the franchise I love!

Turns out it was not.

As a child I remember watching Doctor Aki Ross scouring the post-apocalyptic and fallen Earth for spirits, hoping she would come across some object that would summon a creature, such as Odin, from Final Fantasy, and kill all the phantoms. She never did and I walked out of the cinema confused. This was not a Final fantasy film. It was just a science fiction film.

Despite feeling down about the fact that I did not see any references to my favourite video game franchise I liked the movie. Or perhaps even loved it. I cannot remember. The CGI was astonishing, the world and landscape immersive, and magical. Combining that with the wonderful music by Goldenthal left me sitting in wonder at the impressive and transcendental world before me. I know a lot of critics at the time found the artificial actors to be uncanny and life-lacking. I did not think so. Aki Ross and her team were as real as you and I.

That is at least how I remember it. Then I watched the movie a few days ago on Blu-Ray. The animations and characters models were almost plain ugly. Games like Uncharted and Killezone 2 have better and more fluid animations. I can see now how the critics thought the actors of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within fell into the uncanny valley. Even though they looked real – on screenshots – there was just something off when they moved. The scripts was also very weak, weaker than I remembered. While watching the movie I found myself slightly unfocused, checking my blog, and typing notes into my phone.

Despite the aged animations and odd conversations, the music and landscape were still impressive. In fact I went back to the movie again and re-watched some of the scenes. Despite being ten years old the CGI looks fantastic in places. Even today there are not many movies that can parallel it in terms of immersion into another magical world. What is sad, I think, is that people cannot appreciate what the movie offers because of its artificial actors. It is understandable seeing as they have aged considerably in ten years time.

But I think that is how we will see Avatar in ten years time as well. Even while watching Avatar in a massive IMAX cinema I was never convinced the Na’vi’s were real. They looked like CGI – and so did the actors of Final Fantasy. Yet Avatar performed extremely well (the highest grossing movie of all time to date). This is despite Final Fantasy having better scenery, better music, and a better plot (though weak). Then why did Final Fantasy perform so “badly” at the box office? It must be because the audience was not ready for a fully animated movie. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was ahead of its time.

Now, one could argue that while Final Fantasy is completely animated whereas Avatar has real actors as well. Yes – but the majority of the movie contains high-end, uncanny valley, CGI creatures. The main reason the audience can accept the Na’vi and not the actors of Final Fantasy is because they are not human and thus it is acceptable that they don’t seem real in behaviour and appearance.

Ten years after the premiere of Final FantasyI am saddened to see that Square Pictures had to close down and Aki Ross, who would appear in many other movies and be the first artificial actress, died. Aki, despite being animated, is beautiful and even though her movement and appearance is a bit off I still felt her humanity while watching the movie. She is real.

The truth is that she will never grace the screen again and will remain on harddrives stacked somewhere in one of Square Enix’s storage areas. I would give everything to see her again, watch her talk and act human, listening to Goldenthal’s “The Dream Within.”

That is why I hereby make a promise, a woke, a prophecy I will fulfil. One day I will write a book to include the character of Aki Ross. That book will sell well and be turned into a movie. Thus Aki will be brought back to life. If I succeed – not only will I prove that one man can change the world if he puts his mind into it – but also that I can fulfil my wishes and desires and bring back that which had been long lost and dead. I will bring a dead actor back to life. The dream within never dies.

 – F H Hakansson

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