True Hollywood Story
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
By Alex Weitzman
The weekend of July 13th through the 15th, three new movies were premiering and vying for the coveted #1 money-maker spot for that particular movie-going three days. One was The Score, a crime drama/thriller sporting the greatest method actors of three generations: Brando, De Niro, and Norton. One was Legally Blonde, a typical moron/bimbo movie starring Reese Witherspoon, illuminated with the personal approval of some horny studio executive.
And one was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. I assume a summary or description is not necessary at this point. It is likely that, if you're enough of a fan to be involved with this site, then you've not only seen this movie already, but you've probably enjoyed it just as much as Icy Brian, myself, and many other Squaresoft fans I've spoken to have. Worry not, all you late moviegoers - this is as spoiler-free as it gets. My topic is not the content of the movie directly.
What there is to discuss is the travesty that was that particular opening weekend. Final Fantasy received a blatantly dismal opening, falling short of both The Score and the weekend-winner, Legally Blonde. One thing I won't - and frankly, couldn't - try to explain is why THAT film was the top of the heap. In fact, I read that 75% of the audience were women, equally based in the ages above 25 years old and below. Any female readers, please e-mail me about how this could be possible; I thought the thing looked worse than sexist, and I'm a guy. I need my faith restored in the intelligence of female moviegoers.
But anyway, that's not what I'm going to examine. How could Final Fantasy falter before such non-summer fare? What contributed to the fact that, after that pathetic weekend, it literally dropped off the Top Ten List, never to be seen again?
Well, there's no denying that critics played a part. Although some critics embraced the film (Ebert, Carr, etc.), most critics used Final Fantasy as their new litterbox. However, I do not think so much of critics as to credit them with the downfall of this film. Rather, I propose that the entire reporting profession is partly to blame for this mishap. Let me guide you through the coverage of Final Fantasy.
While role-playing gamers had been hearing about the Final Fantasy movie, at least in rumors, since 1999, the real widespread, non-niche coverage began in the beginning of this year, when Square Pictures had some real, legitimate photos to spread around. And here's where Final Fantasy's fate was somewhat sealed before it even got the chance to speak for itself.
Its own technological advances doomed it. You heard me; the brilliance of the computer animation led to the movie's downfall. This is what I saw happening every time I saw a news story on the movie: lots of gushing about how incredible Aki's hair looked, various random statistics of the amount of animators and man-years it took to create her, and, of course, some unnecessary crack about the then-perceived-as-upcoming actors' strike. The reporter might comment that the movie is "based on the popular video game series of the same name", but that would be it. Not one word about what made the source material great in the first place! In fact, it does remind one of typical game coverage of a Final Fantasy. Most magazines gush about the lush graphics and mind-blowing FMVs that the new Final Fantasy exhibits, but it's not until the game comes out that the reviewers bite the bullet and admit, "Okay, the real reason this game and all that came before it rocks is because of the story it tells." Unfortunately, now we're dealing with movie reporters who willingly are shunning the research they could've one to find out that the Final Fantasies are sooner known for their stories than anything else.
But no, they didn't say anything about the story. And I could see it coming. I felt a little like Cassandra at Troy: too much talk of pretty stuff is going to make cynics' gums bleed with anticipation to rip the soul of the movie apart. I saw it coming. And, lo and behold, not more than one month before the Wednesday opening, a late-night news special on Final Fantasy involved the channel's resident movie critic asking, "Yeah, but will there be anything to back it up? Will the story be worth it?" The graphical concentration had taken its toll. Now Final Fantasy would be viewed just like a computer - all bytes and no soul. Entertainment Weekly poste their annual It List, and Aki made it as It Virtual Female. But while other fictional characters on the It List, even the computer-animated Gingerbread Man from Shrek, were given funny, personality-fitting answers to each of their small It List interviews, Aki was portrayed like a malfunctioning copy of Windows. "Best Advice: 404 not found." "Knew She'd Made It When: Missing fat table. Invalid operating system. Illegal operation. System failure." "Ultimate Ambition: You've got mail!" (On a similar note, I wrote EW in complaint of that particular It List stunt. They never printed it.)
Sure enough, upon the release of the film, it seemed to me that reporters and critics had almost worked together in one large conspiracy against Final Fantasy. The reporters built the masses' interest up on visuals, visuals, and....you guessed it....visuals, allowing the critics to come later and save their minds by saying, "It's all eye candy and nothing else!" Great way to ruin interest in a film, huh? Add to that something I mentioned earlier - the unnecessary cracks about the actors' strike. Final Fantasy was painted by many reporters to be an answer to actors who won't act. Well, I am an actor, and I can easily say to reporters that their comments are utterly wasted. First of all, they'd need actors to supply the voices of those digital stars; otherwise, why have an A-list cast like Alec Baldwin, James Woods, Steve Buscemi, and Donald Sutherland? Then there's the fact that Sakaguchi was never trying to replace real actors. Still, the movie and its makers were given that malicious image, and it also can turn off an audience.
One more thing, outside of the faulty media, seems to have contributed to the American moviegoer failure. For the longest time, animation has not been viewed properly in the USA. Even now, with so many animated films being conceivably more enjoyable for adults than kids, adults sooner label animation as a kid thing, not an art form. Sakaguchi did not make Final Fantasy so realistic that you forget it's computer-animated; he merely created such an incredible world that it can be more real than reality. Computer animation is still in its infancy, and notice that it has been the safest, most cutesy fare that has won people over to the computer-animated movies. Pixar is the biggest offender here, and while their films are very good, they're also very safe for the still-unaccepting and unsure American audience. Toys. Bugs. Closet monsters (the upcoming Monsters, Inc.). These things are either whimsical, youth-attracting, or both. Realistic animation has not been popular, because Americans would still rather say the word "cartoon" than "animation". "Animation" sounds like the art form it really is. "Cartoon" sounds like "Steamboat Willie".
So when a piece of technology in its most currently advanced state for animation comes to the Americans, they are somewhat too weirded out to go see it. They can't handle animation as a forum for adults. They recall the "cartoons" of their youth and mentally connect animation to youth due to that. Final Fantasy, thus, can be said to be unappreciated IN ITS TIME. I can almost assure you that later, when such technological practices are commonplace in film, the masses will rediscover Final Fantasy and realize how great the film truly is.
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within got a really bad rap. Combine that with the fact that it is not appealing enough to the average schmo who doesn't understand that animation isn't just for kids, and you've got a failed film. Final Fantasy doesn't even have the type of built-in audience that Tomb Raider would have, because RPGs are such a niche section of gaming. What I hope is that it's a tremendous video cassette smash.
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