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review added: 10/8/01



Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
Special Edition - 2001 (2001) - Columbia/Square Pictures (Columbia TriStar)

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within - Special Edition

Film Rating: B-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A+/A/A-

Specs and Features

Disc One: The Film
106 mins, PG-13, anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1), dual-disc keep case packaging, single-sided, dual-layered (layer switch at 17:27, at the start of chapter 6), audio commentary (with co-director Motonori Sakakibara, sequence supervisor Hiroyuki Hayashida, sets & props lead artist Tatsuro Maruyama and Phantom supervisor Takao Noguchi - in Japanese with optional English & French subtitles), audio commentary by animation director Andy Jones, editor Chris S. Capp & staging director Tani Kunitake, isolated score with commentary by composer Elliot Goldenthal, storyboards/playblasts option with optional production commentary and subtitled factoids, teaser trailer, theatrical trailer, sneak preview of Final Fantasy X, trailers for Men in Black, Starship Troopers and Metropolis, animated film-themed menus with sound effects and music, scene access (28 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 & 2.0) and French (DD 2.0), subtitles: English & French, Closed Captioned

Disc Two: Supplemental Materials
single-sided, dual-layered disc (no layer switch), The Making of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within documentary with "information pod" branching spotlights & optional filmmaker commentary, 7 character files, 3 vehicle scale comparisons, Final Fantasy Shuffler (interactive editing feature), Trailer Explorations featurette, The Gray Project featurette, additional Boards/Blasts, matte art explorations, joke outtakes, compositing builds, the film's original opening, Aki's Dream, Easter egg, DVD-ROM features (including Interactive film exploration with complete screenplay, virtual tour of Square Pictures, screen saver & weblinks), animated film themed menu screens with sound

Once upon a time, a very expensive movie was released that promised to bring video games to life. The movie was spectacular to look at, and made pioneering use of cutting-edge computer generated imagery to create a visual style unlike anything that had ever been seen before. Unfortunately, so much care and attention was lavished upon the look of the movie that the story suffered. Faced with a simplistic plot and one-dimensional characters, audiences by and large ignored the very expensive movie. It quickly left theatres and virtually disappeared. Eventually, the movie's visual effects were acknowledged as truly revolutionary and the movie became a cult favorite. That movie was TRON... but odds are good that, sooner or later, the same story will be used to describe Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. A movie of amazing visual sophistication and equally amazing narrative simplicity, Final Fantasy is, for both good and ill, TRON for the 21st Century.

The year is 2065 and Earth has been ravaged by an alien race known as Phantoms. These transparent beasties come in all shapes and sizes, and literally suck the life out of anyone they touch. Dr. Aki Ross (voiced by Ming-Na) and her mentor, Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland), have come up with a plan to collect eight life spirits in order to learn the Phantoms' secrets, figure out where they came from and why they're here, and rid the planet of them once and for all. However, General Hein (James Woods), who lost his family to the Phantoms, wants to wipe them out with an apocalyptic space laser called the Zeus Cannon. Sid and Aki fear that using the Zeus Cannon will irreparably harm Gaia, the Spirit of the Earth, so they suddenly find themselves in a race against time. But backing them up are rag-tag a team of solders (voiced by the likes of Alec Baldwin, Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi and Frasier's Peri Gilpin).

The main problem with Final Fantasy isn't the connect-the-dots plot or the new-agey, eco-friendly message. Simple stories can always be forgiven if they're told well, and there's nothing inherently wrong with the "respect the Earth" theme. It's simply that this Japanese/American co-production seems to have combined some of the worst elements of both cultures. There's no real sense of urgency in the movie, which makes it distinctly Japanese. But there's also no sense of mystery, which makes it distinctly American. You can figure out what's going to happen pretty much from the get-go and, without many adrenaline-pumping action scenes to hurry things along, all you're left to do is look at the visuals.

But what amazing visuals they are. Ballyhooed as the first photo-realistic computer animation in movie history, Final Fantasy is, without question, a visual feast. It's fascinating just to watch these characters move and talk, even when they're not saying anything particularly interesting. Columbia TriStar has created a reference-quality disc with this movie, easily holding its own against such CGI, direct-digital heavyweights as Toy Story and A Bug's Life. But unlike those family films, Final Fantasy is visually very dark, with strong, well-defined shadows and bursts of light piercing through dust and smoke. Just look at the detailed blacks in Hein's leather jacket and you'll see what I mean. The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is also pretty amazing. There's great atmospheric play and channel-to-channel panning, and plenty of rumbling bass with roaring Phantoms and explosions a-plenty. You can pretty well assume that you'll be seeing Final Fantasy playing on high-end TV sets every time you go into an electronics store for the next few months.

This 2-disc set is jam-packed with extras detailing every phase of the 4-year production. Obviously, it took hundreds of animators, artists, designers and computer experts to bring Final Fantasy to the screen, and at times it seems like every last one of them has been given an opportunity to talk about their involvement. It's weird to fault a DVD for giving us too much information, but this comes close. There's so much tech talk being thrown around that it's hard to imagine the casual viewer will wade through every extra.

Disc One includes two commentary tracks, one by members of the Japanese team and another by members of the American team. The Japanese commentary is the more interesting of the pair, if only because these guys seem to be having a much better time, laughing and pointing out narrative details that are confusing (at one point, one of them jokes that he's glad he bought this disc so he could listen to the commentary and figure out the story himself). Since this track is in Japanese and subtitled, it's possible to have the subtitles on without the audio track but you'll miss out on a lot of good-natured joking around if you do. The American guys are a little more subdued, occasionally just telling us what we're seeing on screen. Still, it's good to have both tracks to get a sense of the global nature of the production. The first disc also includes an isolated score with commentary by composer Elliot Goldenthal. This is a welcome addition, if for no other reason than it offers some respite from all the talk of bit-rates and data on the other tracks. Goldenthal's comments remind us that for all the high-tech work, this is still a feature film with dramatic and narrative needs just like any other.

Another remarkable feature, Boards/Blasts, runs the movie as a series of storyboards and "playblasts" (which, I assume, means pencil tests & early, unfinished CGI work). This feature has its own commentary track, plus subtitled factoids that appear on screen a la VH1's Pop Up Video. Watching the movie this way will really give you a case of information overload, but it's fun and definitely unique. A fistful of trailers are also on the first disc, including both theatrical trailers for The Spirits Within, a game preview for Final Fantasy X and previews of other Columbia TriStar releases, including the forthcoming Japanese anime Metropolis.

The highlight of Disc Two is an interactive "making-of" documentary. Throughout the featurette, "information pods" appear in the lower left corner. Hitting "enter" when these "pods" appear leads you to more behind-the-scenes footage and interviews. Another icon appears in these segments which allows you to change audio tracks and hear more commentary by the filmmakers. The documentary runs about half an hour on its own. And if you follow all the pods and alternate audio tracks, it becomes about three times as long. The only real flaw with all this is lack of identification. Most of the participants introduce themselves on camera but not all of them do, and none of the speakers on the alternate audio tracks are identified. Everybody provides insight into the making of the film, but it would have been nice to know who these people are.

The remainder of Disc Two is given over to further behind-the-scenes explorations of mattes, compositing, character design and even the creation of the trailers. Character files and vehicle scale comparisons remind you that this is based on a game, after all, as we learn such minute, useless character details as blood type and date of birth. Game players love this kind of thing, but the rest of us probably couldn't care less. The Final Fantasy Shuffler allows you to re-edit the conference scene so it doesn't make any sense… kind of amusing but hardly the kind of feature that's going to coerce anybody who's on the fence into buying the disc. Both the documentary and the Shuffler features are explained by a soothing, British, female voice not unlike Mother in Alien.

As for the other features, an alternate opening is notable for both its similarities and differences to the final film, with rougher, cartoonier animation. Aki's Dream edits together the various dream sequences that are scattered throughout the film into one 10-minute mini-movie. And to prove that they've got a sense of humor, a few gag outtakes are included along with a bizarre (but amusing) Easter egg that will appeal to Michael Jackson fans. The allegedly cross-platform DVD-ROM features (without a DVD-equipped Macintosh, I was unable to confirm or deny this) include the complete screenplay as well as a nifty tour of Square Pictures' studio.

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is kind of a strange little package. As exhaustive a look at the creative process behind a single film as I've seen on DVD, this release is sure to satisfy fans of the movie. But judging from the movie's box office performance, most people aren't going to be fans of the movie until they check out the DVD. If you're the sort of person who buys DVDs sight unseen simply because they'll show off your home theater equipment, you'll definitely want to pick up Final Fantasy. If not, you should still give this one a rent and check it out, if only to see what the state-of-the-art in CGI looks like these days. It's hard to imagine it getting much more sophisticated than this, but it surely will. Just look at TRON.

Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com




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