The Disney+ Sci-Fi Epic Adventure That Destroyed A Major Company

By Jeffrey Rapaport | Published

final fantasy spirits within 1

Ah, video game adaptations—some, like the Laura Croft franchise, mirror their source material in terms of critical dismissal. Others, like The Last of Us, rise to the occasion and do their video game origins justice. Which brings us to Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, available now in the Hulu section of Disney+ (a section still in beta, requiring subscriptions to both services).

The ambitious, early 2000s epic was satisfying critics and pioneering technology, but it bombed spectacularly at the box office. It’s a fascinating, if not frustrating, outlier. 

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

The movie was a significant collaboration between Square Pictures and Columbia Pictures. It’s no exaggeration to say the two juggernauts aimed to revolutionize the gaming and movie industries.

They were joined in their efforts by the creator of the Final Fantasy franchise, Hironobu Sakaguchi, who crafted the world’s first photorealistic computer-animated feature film.

Their efforts amounted to a high-stakes gamble that aimed to blend the finest cinematic storytelling with state-of-the-art animation technology. 

The Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within Cast

The project also sported a star-studded—and vaguely weird—cast of voice actors, including Alec Baldwin (!), Donald Sutherland, Steve Buscemi, and other notables. 

Despite the big-deal cast and extremely expensive and pioneering animation technology, the film is remembered for its colossal box office failure. This dismal financial result almost bankrupted SquareSoft and motivated its eventual (inevitable) merger with Enix. 

A Dystopian Future

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within takes place in a dystopian future where aliens called Phantoms, spectral entities that emerged from a meteorite crash, ravage the Earth.

These baddies suck the life force, or Gaia, out of living creatures—instantly killing them upon contact (although some milder encounters result in infection). 

Like any decent dystopian story, humanity’s last desperate bastions hug barrier cities, enclaves shielded by energy that repel the Phantoms. 

Collecting Spirits

Dr. Aki Ross, a gifted scientist, and his mentor, Dr. Sid, form the heart of the Final Fantasy film’s narrative as they quest to discover a peaceful solution to the Phantom invasion.

The duo believes that if they collect eight specific spirits (particular energy signatures contained in living organisms), they could fashion an energy wave capable of dispelling the Phantoms while preserving Earth’s Gaia.

Aki, voiced by Ming-na Wen, is spurred on by personal factors, as well; a Phantom infected her during her research, and her work, if it succeeds, will save herself alongside the planet.

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within Team

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

Another voice-acting oddity/treasure is James Woods voicing General Hein, who, opposed to Aki’s research and fulfilling the hawkish military guy trope in Final Fantasy, urges the use of the Zeus cannon, a massive space-based weapon, to blow up the aliens. 

And perhaps most enjoyably for fans today—or at least fans of everybody’s favorite Baldwin brother—Alec voices Captain Gray Edwards, the leader of the Deep Eyes squad, a military team tasked with protecting Aki on her missions seeking the Phantoms for study.

As a subplot details, Aki shared a romantic involvement with Baldwin/Captain Edwards in the past…

A Revolutionary Production?

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

On a more serious note, the production of Final FantasyThe Spirits Within was genuinely revolutionary.

It employed a render farm—a complex computing system, such as a computer cluster, intended to process computer-generated imagery (CGI)—with over 960 workstations.

By doing so, Square Pictures created a work of art that was as visually stunning as it was innovative, a film setting new standards for animation. The rendering of Aki Ross, the world’s first photorealistic, computer-animated actor, remains an iconic aspect of the film. 

Massive Price Tag

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

Nonetheless, all this ambitious technological magic came with a significant price tag: $137 million (equal to $205 million in 2022). The box office gross?

Unfortunately, $85.1 million– a financial disaster. Many attribute the movie’s deviation from the thematic and narrative elements of the Final Fantasy video game series as a significant cause of the economic letdown, as the creative departure might have alienated the franchise’s fan base. 

Stream Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

Critically, the film earned significant points for its excellent animation, alongside the voice-acting of thespians like Baldwin (see him opposite Meryl Streep in It’s Complicated, on Netflix now).

However, the photorealistic detail and lifelike renderings did not make up for what some critics saw as a needlessly complex narrative that failed to convey its philosophic themes compellingly. 

Either way, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is worth streaming for gamers and non-gamers alike.