Square Enix has tried three times to make a great Final Fantasy movie, with limited success. For most video game series, this would be no surprise at all. Video game movies suck. Everybody knows that. But Final Fantasy in particular seems like it should defy the trend. The games have been trying to be movies since the PlayStation 1 era. They are made to have strong characters, heavy story focus, and exciting cinematics. Gamers today still look back fondly on the storylines of games like Final Fantasy Tactics. But most people have already forgotten about The Spirits Within.
Recently the latest film in the series, Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV, was released. It is the first Final Fantasy movie in over a decade and is a prologue to the upcoming JRPG. Kingsglaive opened to a buzzsaw of bad reviews. Currently it has a pathetic single-digit score on Rotten Tomatoes. Kingsglaive will never be anything more than a two hour advertisement for the game. For some fans, that is enough.
The shame is that Final Fantasy movies started out looking to be so much more. Square Co./Square Enix wanted to to push the envelope of what CG animation could achieve. Even today Kingsglaive is so impressive that its visuals could be mistaken for live action. Yet beyond the graphics and the crazy action scenes, Final Fantasy has never made a good movie. It has never met the ambition that it started out with.
Fifteen years ago, the then-Square Co. was attempting something massive with Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. The film was the result of an investment of over a hundred million dollars and four years of work. A whole Square Pictures studio was created in Hawaii. The full power of Sony’s Columbia arm was used to market the film around the world. Major actors like Alec Baldwin, James Woods, and Donald Sutherland would voice characters. The Spirits Within was planned to be the flashship of a new medium of film.
Photorealistic CG films were imagined to be a revolution in the industry. The star of the movie, Aki Ross, would become a “digital actress”, a reusable character that could appear in later films. Square Co. wanted her to have her own fanbase. They even sent out shameless pin-up pictures of Aki in a bikini to Maxim magazine. In 2001 CG animation was known mainly for Toy Story. Serious adult animated films were a rarity then as they are now. Square Pictures thought their experience with PlayStation FMVs and complex storylines would translate to a mass audience.
The Spirits Within was a compromise somewhere between Final Fantasy and a Western SciFi film like Aliens. It based its plotline on none of the games in the series. This was not just going to be a movie for the fans of the games, but a movie for everybody. The more ridiculous elements of the series like Chocobos and spikey-haired teenagers were removed. Instead the film was set in the near-future of Earth in the midst of an alien invasion. But The Spirits Within ripped-off concepts from Final Fantasy VII like the Lifestream. The Lifestream came back in this movie as a spirit of a living Earth or “Gaia” that needed to be rescued.
The result was a film that felt a bit too weird for mass audiences, while also in a lot of ways very cliché. Much of the movie is spent explaining the Gaia concept and the nature of the aliens. It furthers wastes time building up the mystery through dream sequences. But the story has very typical elements. There are your normal armored space soldiers, a standard romantic bickering between its leads, and a fanatic human villain. For all the glitz and glamor of CG animation and weird new age elements to its plot, The Spirits Within was just another SciFi action movie.
All that ambition, unfortunately, turned to nothing. The Spirits Within was a disastrous flop that destroyed Square Pictures virtually overnight. Critical reception was mixed, impressed by the visuals but not by the story. However, audiences were not won over. The film failed to make back its budget.
Square Pictures, rather than leading a film revolution, would only manage one more production before folding. That was the short-film “Final Flight of the Osiris” which was included in The Animatrix. (That was a big-ish deal back when The Matrix in any way was relevant.) Director of The Spirits Within and creator of Final Fantasy, Hironobu Sakaguchi was pushed out of the company. He would never again direct a film.
As for Aki Ross? She would never work again. She’s never even been invited to any of the Final Fantasy crossover games.
Preaching to the Choir
In 2005 the next attempt at a Final Fantasy movie was Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. The now-Square Enix, knew its audience with this title. The movie would come out straight-to-DVD for the FFVII faithful. Rather than a new hundred million dollar studio, Advent Children was produced by Square Enix’s FMV studio, Visual Works. Major stars were replaced by a crew of voice actors. Instead of launching a new medium, Advent Children‘s main goal was to promote a line of mediocre sequels and side-products, the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII.
The fans loved the rivalry between the game’s hero Cloud and its antagonist Sephiroth. So director Tetsuya Nomura made a movie all about Sephiroth’s return from the dead. The story was a collection of fanservice moments. Every party member gets a moment to shine, even if they have no place in the plot. Characters fall back on their expected roles. Cloud, for example, regresses from his character development back into his broody anti-social self from Disc 1. Ultimately though, everything in Advent Children is about setting up the massive fight scene at the end. No hippie-dippie Gaia here, this movie is about swords and explosions.
Advent Children was exactly what it needed to be. Its crazy action scenes broke every law of physics. The intended audience cheered the madness of it all. It sold millions of DVDs and built hype for weaker titles like Dirge of Cerberus. The movie excited the fanbase enough to wait a long decade for the announcement of a Final Fantasy VII Remake. By those measures it was a success. But in terms of being a good movie on its own? Same problems with dialog, characters, and story as before.
Between Advent Children and Kingsglaive was a ten-year gap of no film production at Square Enix. Smaller productions like Last Order: Final Fantasy VII and Brotherhood: Final Fantasy XV were outsourced to anime studios. It seemed for awhile that Square Enix was simply done with movies altogether. Then Kingsglaive was announced this February.
Kingsglaive is directed by Takeshi Nozue, who also worked on Advent Children. It is also made by Visual Works. This might explain why the film is very similar in goals and structure to the film that came before. Sony allowed Kingsglaive to get a limited release in select theaters just weeks before it was released to BluRay and digital. And some famous actors do pepper the cast this time, like Game of Thrones‘ Sean Bean and Lena Headey.
While making CG films seem like they speak to Square Enix’s strongest points, they actually seem to highlight their greatest weaknesses. Yes, Kingsglaive is a fantastic tech demo to the possibilities of photorealistic computer graphics, just like the others. It is stunningly beautiful at times. But it also has bad dialog, underwritten characters, and a confusing jumble of lore. These are same problems that plagued the last two Final Fantasy films. Like Advent Children Kingsglaive is a build-up to a long extended fight scene, only without the star power of Cloud and Sephiroth.
In all likelihood, this is what potential Final Fantasy movies are going to look like in the future.
Final Fantasy movies are all in some ways works of art. The Spirits Within proved that CG animation was a very flexible medium and could be used for great action scenes. It predicted what modern blockbusters would look like. Compare movies like Avatar to what Square Pictures was doing with The Spirits Within. Advent Children and Kingsglaive took the technology to further and further heights, creating just insanely cool action beats. But why don’t they work?
Beyond the technology, The Spirits Within alone was a respectable failure. It had goals and probably impossible dreams. It had an ambitious message in its weird Gaia storyline. Final Fantasy just is not interested in trying for that again. It hardly seems interested in characters in its movies. They are nothing more than handsome faces that hold swords. You will never find anything like the Vivi plotline from Final Fantasy IX or the romance from Final Fantasy X. The movies are not about that those subtle character moments.
Unfortunately, the movies have always missed the best parts of a great series.