Technology has generally walked a few steps behind Hironobu Sakaguchi's vision. The creator of Final Fantasy has cultivated his notions of far-away lands and epic characters through a series of game releases, but even the remarkably beautiful Final Fantasy X has faced various technological roadblocks. But finally, it seems that Sakaguchi has found a medium that is able to cater to his grandiose methods of storytelling. In Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Sakaguchi and the team at Square Pictures have created a cutting-edge visual masterpiece, which at times is so exquisitely detailed that it compels the audience to remind themselves that the onscreen characters are only a collection of polygons and hand-drawn textures.
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is set in the mid-21st century, when a large meteor has crashed on Earth, leaving much of the planet in ruins. An invading race of aliens, who are able to extract human souls and leave the bodies lifeless, have sprung forth from the meteor and are depleting the remaining human habitats. A group of American scientists, headed by the film's lead character, Aki Ross (voiced by Ming Na), and Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) may have found a way to stop the alien menace known as Phantoms and have enlisted the help of the Deep Eyes Squad, a special-ops military unit headed by Captain Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin). Meanwhile, the maniacal General Hein (James Woods) believes that the only way to rid Earth of the alien presence is to fire an ultra-powerful space cannon, destroying the Phantoms and Earth's remaining habitats with it. From this point, Aki and her crew must stop the Phantom invasion and prevent General Hein from destroying Earth. All the while, through her dreams--shown in a highly stylistic manner in the film--Aki must discover the true path to achieve Earth's restoration.
But beneath its spiritual theme and awe-inspiring CG, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is a conventional sci-fi action film, which pays homage to classic sci-fi magazines, as well as films such as Aliens and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In fact, Sakaguchi's inspirations are endless. As he puts it: "Tim Burton, James Cameron--I like all the moviemakers that everyone else likes."
While the film's story may have percolated in Sakaguchi's mind for some time, its lead character has changed in appearance--and even gender--before reaching the final state that it's in today. "Initially, the main character was a male lead," Sakaguchi reveals. "However, as the story developed and transformed, we switched to Aki as the lead. See, a lot of the story has to do with the human spirit and what it takes to cleanse the spirit, and a female character seemed to embody that a little better. Also, the position of the character is such that she is solitary in this grand battle, with the enormous forces squaring off against her. So, she had to be a strong-willed person, but she also had to have some vulnerability. And we thought a female lead worked very well in that scenario." Aki's general design has undergone drastic transformations. The initial designs for the Aki Ross character had more in common with a runway model than a scientist. Believing that these original models made her look almost too flawless, the designers at Square Pictures altered her appearance and drew blemishes onto her face, creating a more authentic lead character.
According to the designers at Square Pictures, the final version of Aki Ross retains an appealing look, while being able to better convey emotions such as sympathy and compassion. Sakaguchi believes that, despite the countless hours put forth in designing and redesigning the character, this final version of Aki we see today is more believable and is able to connect with the audience better. "It took about a year and a half to get Aki to where she is now," Sakaguchi said. "And through that, there have been... different versions of Aki that were developed before we settled on the final model. However, I'm extremely happy with the model we have now, and I think moviegoers will like her as well."
In fact, Sakaguchi and the team at Square Pictures is so content with the CG-modeled Aki Ross character, they plan on using her likeness in further film releases. Although she might not be called Aki Ross, she could return in future Square Pictures films as a detective or perhaps as a young girl--there aren't many limitations when dealing in the world of computer-generated imagery. "Currently, we are considering three or four different ideas, and a direct sequel is certainly one of them," Sakaguchi said, when asked about future projects from Square Pictures. "One of the ideas we're considering is taking the characters from the movie and having them play a new role in a different feature. It could be a gang movie or it could be a detective story. It doesn't even have to be directly related to this Final Fantasy film. The CG person that played Aki Ross in Final Fantasy could play someone else in these films. We could have her play a detective and have the Gray Edwards character be a mafia boss, in totally different roles." The possibilities are endless and are certainly intriguing.
While a possible film sequel will continue to explore stories that are based entirely out of the Final Fantasy gameworlds, Sakaguchi and his production team have included a few Easter eggs for fans of the Final Fantasy games. "One thing we have in the film is that there are a couple of Chocobos that are actually shown in a nondescript fashion in the movie," Sakaguchi explains. "They're kind of hidden away, but if you look close enough, you might spot them. Also, I actually have a cameo in the movie as well. So, that is something to look out for." When watching the film, keep a close eye out for the Chocobos and look for Sakaguchi in a conference room scene.
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is a revolutionary film. Not only has it advanced the art of CG filmmaking into ultrarealistic dimensions, but it also has stirred up the constant controversy about the evolving role of CG characters in movies--an argument that began with the appearance of Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars Episode 1: Phantom Menace. A term dubbed "hyperrealism" in Hollywood circles is used to describe this phenomenon, which has some worried that CG actors could one day replace the flesh and blood kind. "I am very troubled by it," Academy Award winner Tom Hanks recently told the New York Times, in discussing the emerging role of virtual actors. "But it's coming down, man. It's going to happen. And I'm not sure what actors can do about it," Hanks continued. On the other hand, Sakaguchi believes that the two seemingly competitive medias can coexist, but he says that Final Fantasy has opened one of many doors leading to true photo-realism in digital films. "Given more time, we could have made the movie even more detailed," Sakaguchi says. "We will use what we have learned with this first film to advance the CG quality in further digital film releases."
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within will reach theaters nationwide on July 11. For now, be sure to watch GameSpot Live's exclusive