This past weekend I had some time on my hands due to it being an extended weekend thanks to the wonderful holiday that is Thanksgiving. With not too much to do video game wise aside from play Modern Warfare 3 for the first time, I wasn’t too thrilled about it, and watch movies I decided to watch something I’ve had in my Blu-ray collection but hadn’t yet watched. The film in question was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, the fully CG Final Fantasy movie that was produced and helmed by SquareSoft and directed by none other than the creator of the Final Fantasy series – Hironobu Sakaguchi.
It’s somewhat odd that Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is never brought up too often in conversations about video game movies but perhaps that can be chalked up to how gamers, or at least core Final Fantasy fans, weren’t too fond of the film upon it’s release. Opting to tell an entirely new story and not one already established or connected to existing FF lore, The Spirits Within was radically different from what was to be expected from Final Fantasy and that probably resulted in why it was somewhat of a mega bomb at the box office. Looking back at The Spirits Within ten years later I’m surprised at how much of an impact it’s had not only in the video game biz but the film industry itself, the latter of which is still being felt to this day.
I don’t know how many of you out there actually saw The Spirits Within but it wasn’t a bad movie. Opting to have a Final Fantasy story set on Earth in the year 2065 as the remnants of humanity battle mysterious alien “invaders” may not have been the best choice as opposed to doing something involving airships and gunblades, but The Spirits Within wasn’t a complete travesty of Double Dragon or Bloodrayne proportions. I’ll be honest by saying that when I saw The Spirits Within back in 2001, I actually saw it twice btw, I was somewhat puzzled by the direction of the story which was a bit grim and depressing throughout. But watching the movie again, albeit ten years later, I was taken aback by how it was a true Final Fantasy tale in its essence.
Perhaps the reason The Spirits Within bombed at the box office, it only made $85 million on a $137 million, was because it didn’t have the pre-requisite Final Fantasy elements like Chocobos, dudes with spikey hair, or antagonists with a wing on their back. But what The Spirits Within did have was a highly emotional story, stunning visuals, and a style that was almost wholly unique to itself; basically all the things the Final Fantasy series is known to have. Obviously having a new setting, characters, and an almost gritty sci-fi presentation probably threw up some red flags for Final Fantasy fans since everything looked foreign, but deep inside of the movie it was still a Final Fantasy experience in its heart.
The original trailer for Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.
The lack of success The Spirits Within received and the continued disappointing box office figures/general reception most video game movies receive today leads to one question: what do gamers want from a video game movie? There are certain aspects gamers expect in a film adaptation of a video game such as a Tomb Raider game starring a sexy yet confident actress as Lara Croft who may or may not have an almost unreal bust size. But there almost seems to be a slight flip flop nature as to what gamers want out of a film. Should a literal adaptation be made that results in the experience being corny or should creative liberties be taken that allow a creative strand to provide some connective tissue to the existing game property?
When gamers receive a very literal adaptation of a video game property that almost plays out like a missing chapter of the game, such as Resident Evil: Degeneration, the result is often mixed with some thinking it was nothing more than fan service. But when Hollywood or creative talent opt to take a video game franchise elsewhere in a new direction, such as the Resident Evil film series, gamers bemoan the addition of new characters and a plot obviously not set within the canon of the video game. The decisions Hollywood makes when adapting a video game into a film can be baffling but sometimes maybe we should just go with the flow and hope that in a rare occurrence something good may come out of it.
When I was lucky enough to speak to director Kevin Tancharoen (Mortal Kombat: Legacy, the forthcoming MK movie), he mentioned how he believes video game films shouldn’t be completely literal in their execution. Kevin went on to say that he believed that taking a few established elements and then adapting those are the best routes to go when making a video game film, which he obviously did with his vision for Mortal Kombat: Legacy and Hironobu Sakaguchi did with Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. As much as we would like to see certain video games appear in their original form on the big screen such a thing sadly can’t happen, either because it’ll look silly or the majority of the general audience, the people who will buy tickets and spread word of mouth, will have no clue what the hell things like a Chocobo are. Perhaps SquareSoft and Hironobu simply overestimated the immediate reach of the Final Fantasy name but providing a slightly more grounded and relatable film as they did in The Spirits Within was still the best route to go in order to appeal to a greater audience and at the same time not entirely sell out on the core principles of the franchise.
But as I mentioned earlier, the disappointing box office result of The Spirits Within did have a greater impact on Hollywood, specifically it killed any shot we had of seeing studios release mature films that are presented through CG. Back in 2001 and when The Spirits Within was in production in the late 1990s, producing a full-length CG film that was longer than 80 minutes wasn’t cheap to do so it needed to be a sure thing to get greenlit. With the huge disappointment of The Spirits Within at the domestic and international box office, the hopes Square had of developing more Final Fantasy films or even those unaffiliated with the project had to do mature CG films were immediately dashed.
I’ll try not to sound bitter, but having to see the medium of CG filmmaking be resorted as a tool utilized for films involving talking animals was something that left me incredibly disappointed given the opportunities it allows. During the course of the ten year period since The Spirits Within was released a few mature CG films have been released, mostly in the French market such as “Renaissance”, and “The Prodigies”, which were good for what they wanted to achieve. But aside from those two films and Square’s eventual return to the world of film making with Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, everyone seems to be scared as hell to do a completely CG film that doesn’t involve an A-list celeb and annoying pop singer doing the voice of a critter or an abnormally designed human.
In a way Hollywood has grown slightly more receptive in producing CG films but the ones they have, such as “The Polar Express” and “Mars Needs Moms”, weren’t exactly top tier in visual quality and were once again box office disappointments in such a huge way that it led to the closure of ImageMovers Digital, the studio behind those films. Looking at things now, we could finally be on the cusp of seeing CG used as a legitimate tool in making films since the new film adaptation of Tintin gives us a completely CG adventure that otherwise couldn’t have been made in live-action yet still has a grounded albeit slightly stylized presentation. The thing is even with the might of Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson behind Tintin the film is still one of those make or break moments in which if it doesn’t make $200+ million at the box office then it’ll mostly be looked at as a disappointment that could kill any chances we see of more mature centric CG films being produced in the future.
My core thoughts may have been a bit of a hodgepodge tied together by Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within but it just boils down to two things: 1. Video game fans need to open their minds a bit when it comes to theatrical adaptation of video games if only to allow some goodness to eventually surface and 2. More people in Hollywood need to utilize CG for films that don’t involve talking animals or cars. In a sense the average film audience is willing to see a CG film that’s entirely action packed and catered towards older people since that’s what Avatar was from James Cameron, a nearly three hour long CG epic. But for some reason there’s still a disconnect amongst audiences when it comes to seeing a CG movie and an even greater amount of Hollywood brass that are all but afraid to sink $100-200 million into a CG movie for it only to make $75 million at the domestic box office.
Watching Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within this past weekend just stirred up a lot of emotions within me since not only was the movie entertaining (it actually holds up well tech wise too) but it just got me thinking about the state of video game films and those created solely via computer generated imagery. At some point gamers just need to accept that not every video game can be recreated in a 1:1 way when becoming a film since it needs to have a tangible feel to it when translated to live action. Even more, taking the CG route with a video game film doesn’t mean we should receive an elongated cutscene and I think Resident Evil: Degeneration is perfect proof of that since the film is somewhat dreadful.
Gamers just need to find the happy medium when it comes to video game films if only to guarantee some absolute goodness later down the line. I don’t know if Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was released today it would be a mega hit, but things certainly would be a different place for both the growth of video game and CG films.