‘No-one is young anymore,’ says Aki in Hironobu Sakaguchi’s extravagant fantasy film, and she’s right; watching the first photo-realistic computer-generated film makes you feel like you’re about a thousand years old. Nothing dates faster than fashion, and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was a project that could, and perhaps should have been the next big thing, and obviously the video-game that shares its DNA has proved an enduring pop-culture icon. This film, less so, but it’s certainly a missing link in the history of movies, a misfit child somewhere between The Matrix, Avatar and Alita.
Bloat is not a problem; there’s narrative snap about the opening, in which Aki (Ming-Na Wen) goes on a scientific expedition in the nicely-named Old New York City. She wanders a deserted Times Square; a virus has unleashed deadly forces known as phantoms, which infect and eventually kill all humans who come into contact with them. The survivors of this plague have secured themselves in barrier cities, where General Hein (Twitter-star James Woods, of course) plans to zap the invaders with the infernal Zeus Cannon. But Aki has found something of a game changer in terms of the pandemic; not injecting yourself with bleach, but forms of plant life which lead her to speculate that the phantoms thrive off negative energy. She imagines that the phantoms are not an invading force, but the undead remnants of a race whose planet disintegrated and fell to earth, killing them all and leaving them to haunt the earth as ghosts.
This is some Tarkovsky-level sci-fi concept, largely delivered in conversations with Dr Sid (Donald Sutherland); some of the tech-talk in this film has to be heard to be believed, and is presumably part of the reason for the film’s box office failure. It’s also true that while the initial introduction of Aki, regretting the casualties entailed by the mission by Gray (Alec Baldwin) to rescue her, has a strong emotional entrance, the film does periodically get a bit lost in the high-faluting concepts involved. And yet Aki’s dream sequences are striking, the visuals are clean and impressive, and the story feels unfamiliar; this isn’t your modern CGI abomination at all.
I bought this film on blu-ray the day before we went into lockdown circa 2020; even writing that line feels like it could have come directly from this film. Final Fantasy is something of an outlier now, way ahead of it’s time, so far, in fact, that the technology required to make it barely existed; the four years of rendering that the film took to create probably soured most of the creative behind it. Today, it’s a folly, but a magnificent one. The money is all on the screen, but leavened with creativity and originality. Today’s film are often unfavourably compared to cut scenes from video games, but there’s art to a great cut scene, and even if people preferred playing the actual game to watching this version of Aki’s story, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within now stands revealed as a genuinely prophetic film that wouldn’t reach its niche until 20 years later.