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REVIEW: In the 2065, humans are under siege by an alien life form that appear like apparitions, roaming the world in silent dreadful hordes. Survivors have constructed enormous, domed “barrier cities” that hold back the aliens but keep people in containment. The Phantoms, as they are known, come in a vast number of species and seem to have no motivation other than to consume the Gaia or soul of each person they encounter, though minor contact results only in infection. Times are desperate and the leadership has put Earth’s defense in the hands of General General Hein (James Woods) who is convinced that the only way to defeat the intruders is with an orbiting space energy weapon called the Zeus Canon, which he intends to fire directly at what appears to be the hub of alien activity, a massive crater where an astroid crashed.
Aki Ross (Ming-Na) is a scientist who is infected, though that is a secret only she and her colleague, Doctor Sid (Donald Sutherland) share. The two have discovered a theoretical means of stopping the invaders by gathering the Gaia of eight specific organic items that when combined will negate the deathly effects of the aliens. She has collected five and tracked the sixth to the abandoned desolate streets of New York City, outside the barrier. After spotting the fragile plant that houses the spirit, Phantoms arrive and she becomes trapped but is rescued at the last moment by Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin) and his squad, the “Deep Eyes” security force, consisting of Ryan Whittaker (Ving Rhames), Neil Fleming (Steve Buscemi) and Jane Proudfoot (Peri Gilpin).
After returning safely home, Aki and Sid appear before the Leadership Council as they debate the proposed use of the Zeus Cannon, but manages to delay the vote by convincing the council that she is infected but alive because the spirits collected are protecting her. Hein though is of another thought. He believes she is under the control of the Phantoms and assigns Gray to keep an eye on her, splitting his loyalty. Worse, to further press the council into letting him fire the cannon, he opens a small section of the barrier, hoping to let in a few Phantoms to serve as a sign of increased danger. That plan goes terribly wrong and now it’s a race to save not only the last survivors of the planet but the Earth itself.
Directed by Hironobu Sakaguchi, a video game designer and the creator of the Final Fantasy role-playing games which the film is related mostly by name only, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is the most expensive video game to film adaptation to date and, at the time, was regarded as the most realistic animated film ever made. The convoluted story and often baffling storyline left many viewers unsure as to what was happening, though many praised it for its technical achievement and as a new usher for films to be similarly made. Certainly, the remarkable animation is the real draw here, as each character was brought to life unlike anything audiences had seen done with CGI yet. Most impressive and most attended to is Aki, the lithe, freckle-faced young woman serving as the film’s protagonist. Intelligent, compassionate and dedicated, she carries the film from start to finish with that stunning opening moment as she floats in space to look at Earth from the window of her ship to the dream sequences that reveal the true nature of the aliens. Naturally, she was also the film’s biggest export, and unlike any part in the film, was made sexy in the promotional materials, even landing a place on many “year’s most sexy” lists, becoming the first fictionalized woman to do so. Whether that’s an achievement worth anything is debatable.
The film itself was a critical and financial disappointment, but has since developed a hard core fanbase that cherishes the work. There are a lot of complex themes at play, most notably the film’s Gaia theory examining life, death and spirits. The hypothesis was developed in the 1970s by English chemist James Lovelock and theorizes that organisms interact with non-organics to form a complex system of self-regulation that maintain the balance for sustaining life, affecting global warming, ocean salinity, the atmosphere and more. It’s not a simple idea and getting its point across in an animated sci-fi film proved even more difficult for audiences who just wanted to see people fighting aliens in glorious new CGI.
Gaia theory aside, the film is visually arresting, with some powerfully emotive set pieces, stunning production design, and beautifully realized Phantoms. After Aki, this is the real reason that the movie is worth a second look. SQUARE PICTURES animation studios (which folded and was merged with SQUARE ENIX) spent four year with 200 employees working 950 computers to create the film and their efforts, viewed aesthetically, are astounding. Script issues notwithstanding, the gorgeously rendered story is still a magnificent work of art that must be seen to appreciate. Accompanied by Elliot Goldenthal’s rousing, sweeping score, it’s feast for the eyes and ears.
Scene Set-up: General Hein has allowed Phantoms to enter the barrier city in an attempt to scare the leaders to quicken their approval of using the Zeus Cannon to kill the aliens. Unfortunately, the breach is too big and the Phantoms cannot be contained. Instead of a handful, hordes flood into the city and the people are quickly over come. “What have I done?” Hein mutters in shame. Meanwhile, Aki and Deep Eyes have collected seven spirits and their only hope now is to escape the city and find the eighth before it’s too late. As chaos reigns within the city, they make way through the screaming masses toward the hangar to reach Aki’s ship and get away. All are riding in a Bandit Hummvy, a small, agile military transport vehicle with a large turret mounted in the back. As the roads are blocked to the hangar, they plow through windows and gangways and eventually crash into the main hangar, which destroys the Bandit. All survive though there is one problem. Ryan has been impaled by a steel rod and is pinned in the gunner’s seat. He’s alive but there is no way to cut him free in time. They have to leave but before they go, he has one request: he wants a weapon.
The Scene (Timestamp 01:02:00): Aki and the rest make it to the ship, which is on a docking tray that rotates to the bay door. As gear is gathered, one of impound tractor clamps, which holds the ship in place, is malfunctioning and needs to be uncoupled by hand. Neil and Jane set out to fix it while Gray remains in the control tower to operate the platform. Then the Phantoms arrive. Jane holds them off while Neil successfully disengages the tractor. As the two celebrate, a Meta-Phantom, a massive multi-tentacled creature, emerges from below and strikes at Neil first and then Jane, killing them instantly. In then heads for the ship.
Gray set the rotating platform in motion and Aki heads to the cockpit as the beast inches toward the ship, and what could be humanity’s last hope. Gray climbs out on a catwalk and tries to draw the monster’s fury, shooting blindly at the beast as the ship spins toward the open bay. Then, from the mangled Bandit Hummvy across the deck, a volley of plasma fire thunders into the phantom as Ryan, barely hanging on, aims the turret at the creature and lures it away. Using a cache of explosive energy rods nearby, he destroys the phantom with one shot. He saves the ship but it’s not long before, right under him, a second meta rises and strips him of his spirit.
The entire scene is a wonderfully framed and executed action set piece that rivals any live action film. The themes of sacrifice and survival are powerfully presented and with Goldenthal’s very emotional score, the battle is really the movie’s strongest moment. Critics often point to a beautiful 3 dimensional world populated with 2 dimensional characters as one of the major flaws in the film, and while it may see like the members of the Deep Eyes troupe are the definition of stock, that is a sweeping comment that neglects the layers they reveal as the story progresses. The camaraderie is obvious but it’s clear that these people have been through hard times in the fight against the phantoms. The playful bickering and harmless insults elude to and pay homage to classic military buddy moments such as those in Aliens (1986) and Platoon (1986). We sense history and even hints of relationships, friendships that have been bonded by the constant fear of death and the fight for a new life. The limitation of the medium at the time prevented deeper expressive models, and clearly much of the budget of animation went into making Aki shine, but even without the full emotive facial signals we associate with emotions, the voice acting by all is highly effective. These are fantastic supporting characters and when they give their lives to keep Aki safe, they elevate this story with real humanity.
Given the complex story and admittedly difficult to follow plot, the film sets up barriers that many may find too cumbersome to take leap over in embracing this film. But for those that do, the film a high dose of action and sci-fi with some surprisingly touching and satisfying moments that offers a lot of rewards.
Thanks to Mel at The Creative Fox Den for inspiring this article.