Square, makers of the Final Fantasy video games, set out to make the ultimate CG film with Spirits Within. Sadly, they were apparently the only ones excited by the technology, because the film was a terrible theatrical flop sending the movie studio division into oblivion. It’s a shame, because what’s here is a technological feat and the studio had limitless possibilities.
Nearly every frame of this film is a masterpiece by itself. Despite being eight years old at the time of this writing, the CG is still better than something like Polar Express. The human “actors” are far more convincing despite the robotic animation that can be a dead giveaway. The environments, cloth physics, hair, and backgrounds are just incredible to look at.
That begs the question as to why this failed miserably. It’s a script issue, one that does nothing to satisfy fans of the game and completely alienates a mainstream audience. The story is predictable up until the end when it becomes a mess of Earth gaia and alien gaia. Even worse, what exactly gaia is remains a partial mystery. It’s a mish-mash of sci-fi films, dealing with phantoms and other worlds, but never seems to grab the audience with a core sense of fantasy logic.
There’s a miscast Steve Buscemi, who delivers fine voice work as the comic relief, but the character design doesn’t match the voice. Action is frequent and mildly intense, but the creatures/phantoms never feel like a major threat. They’re more beautiful than deadly.
Spirits Within seems to get better the more times you view it, mostly because you can piece together the story better. That shouldn’t be necessary, and there’s still no guarantee that the ending won’t come off as a mysterious copout regardless of familiarity. It has its moments and is undeniably a technological masterpiece, but as a film it doesn’t do anything to stay entertaining. [xrr rating=3/5 label=Movie]
While the expectation for a CG animated film is high for a hi-def format, this is bound to disappoint. A layer of intentional grain may surprise some looking for that clear look of other CG animated films, but it’s not a flaw of the transfer. Where things go awry are the terrible black levels, which remain flat, muted, and dull throughout. The film has no contrast to speak of, and colors suffer for it.
Minor instances of aliasing, and some noticeable color banding are also problematic. All of that said, detail is truly remarkable, bringing out every fine texture detail the artists inserted into the film. Despite the blacks giving the appearance of a soft transfer, it is quite sharp and that never wavers. With a better contrast, this is an easy perfect score. [xrr rating=3/5 label=Video]
An uncompressed PCM mix is at least a showcase to make up for the video. Spirits Within loads the subwoofer with plenty to do, shaking the room constantly. There’s hardly a dull moment. The surrounds pick up every possible small detail, from gunfire to doors closing. It’s incredibly immersive and top tier stuff. [xrr rating=5/5 label=Audio]
The menu system can be confusing when it comes to commentaries, but there are only two. First is co-director Moto Sakakbara, supervisor Hiroyuki Hayashida, sets lead artist Tatsuro Maruyama, and finally another supervisor Takoo Noguchi. Second is animation director Andy Jones, editor Chris S. Capp, and staging director Tani Kunitake. The first track is Japanese with subtitles.
An interactive documentary is 30 minutes long, but branches into other content. There’s not much to the piece itself and it’s relatively bland. The branching stuff is also mediocre. A stack of six short featurettes delve into pre-production, making the trailers, and a funny gag reel of animation bloopers. There’s an alternate opening and Aki’s full dream sequence. All of this is a bunch of stuff that’s far too short to be worthwhile. [xrr rating=3/5 label=Extras]