With the 15th game in the main Final Fantasy series due later this month, now is a good time to look back on Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within a failed cinematic side venture in the enormously popular series’ history. Released in 2001 by Square Pictures, a film studio formed by videogame production titan Squaresoft (now known as Square Enix), Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within performed so badly at the box office that the production company was shuttered shortly after its release. Critics disliked it also, praising its stunning visuals but panning its story, which had a distinctively sci-fi flavor despite the “Fantasy” in the title. Critics and audiences failed to see the visionary elements of The Spirits Within. It is one of the few video game adaptations with a truly original story, includes a revolutionary protagonist and serves as an influence for later, primarily CGI films like Avatar and Alice in Wonderland.

With a name like Final Fantasy, the fact that the animated film genre was stuffed full of fantasies and a release date just months before the long anticipated The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, moviegoers and critics alike went into Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within hoping for a movie filled with fairies and castles. But non-gamers weren’t aware that many entries of the Final Fantasy game series’ mixed fantasy with cyberpunk style. Director Hironobu Sakaguchi (creator of the Final Fantasy series) chose to embrace the futuristic side of the Final Fantasy brand, presumably because a two-hour movie allows for far less world building than a forty-hour gaming experience. The result is a story that feels completely told rather than the series of winks and nods that most video game movies consist of.

Despite failing at the time, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within holds up beautifully today and much of that is due to the smart science fiction tale it tells. The film is set on Earth in the year 2065, where alien beings known as Phantoms have infected most of the Earth. The remnants of humanity live in “barrier cities” protected by electrical shields. Scientist Aki Ross (voiced by Ming-Na Wen of “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”) is on a quest to collect nine spirits that she believes will strengthen the Earth’s spirit enough to kill the aliens, and is in a desperate race to collect all of these spirits before the government unleashes a massive weapon that could kill the Phantoms but would kill the Earth as well.

The story is fascinating, tackling issues like global warming, weapons of mass destruction and the conflict between science and religion. And Aki is ahead of her time, both as a technological achievement and as a heroine. In terms of technology, Aki and the other main characters are photorealistic CGI creations, showing a level of emotion thought impossible in animation. The human characters are insanely detailed, and the aliens are thoughtfully rendered, at first eliciting horror but later garnering sympathy.

As a heroine, Aki is deep and multifaceted, driven by science rather than romance and allowed to save the day without depending on looks or weapons but rather her brain and her faith. This kind of female character is still all-too-rare in cinema, with actresses either forced to play the girlfriend or turned into a violent avenging angel that must first endure horrific abuse and punishment (see Katniss Everdeen, Beatrix Kiddo, Bella Swan, Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley for examples). Aki does suffer, but she doesn’t strip to her underwear and go on a killing spree. Instead, she uses a combination of faith and science to discover that the Phantoms aren’t alien invaders but rather displaced ghosts of an alien race whose souls have yet to find rest. Cinema rarely explores the faith of women, particularly when the exploration features conflict. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within excels in this regard, and this makes Aki a unique, bold and important heroine.

The “space ghosts” storyline was dismissed at the time of the film’s release, but it was followed by a number of films that explored the spiritual side of alien encounters, including the critically acclaimed Avatar and District 9. What those films and many others also owe to Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is getting the debate about CGI and live actors going before most technology even warranted such a discussion. At the time of its release, the media wondered if digital characters would someday replace living and breathing thespians. Of course they have not, and while whispers of the same argument have popped up each time a particularly stunning CGI character is introduced (see Gollum, Caesar from Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Neytiri from Avatar), Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within took the bullet early on.

As animated movies show more and more progress technologically, artistically and socially it is hard not to wonder how Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within has been so overlooked. It had a strong female protagonist 12 years before Frozen and a beautifully rendered, computer generated world eight years before Avatar. Though critics and audiences may not have been kind to it at the time, audiences owe it to themselves to see Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within for themselves. It remains a true achievement more than 15 years after its release.

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