Brad Bird once said that while he was directing The Incredibles, everyone told him that it wouldn’t succeed because it focused on human characters. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, the first fully computer-generated, feature-length film to attempt photorealistic 3D animation, had just lost $94 million and was blamed for the closing of its production studio Square Pictures. People didn’t seem interested in seeing the not-quite-human-looking characters CG could produce. Of course, Bird ignored these concerns, knowing that the species of the characters had nothing to do with the quality of their story or the success of a film. Final Fantasy was no exception.
Spirits Within tells the story of Aki Ross, a scientist in the post-apocalyptic near future. Phantoms, an alien species of energy beings invisible to the naked eye, have invaded Earth, killing every living thing they touch. Dr. Ross and her mentor Dr. Sid hope to stop them by creating an energy wave with just the right form and frequency to cancel out the aliens. They also hope to cure Aki, who has been infected with a particle of alien matter, a condition that is usually fatal. For the moment, a chest plate designed by Dr. Sid is keeping her alive by containing the alien infestation safely inside her.
Dr. Sid is a famous scientist known for discovering that humans and other living things contain within them the same energy that phantoms are made of. He’s also found a way to harness this energy for weapons, shields, and technologies used to combat the phantoms. His discoveries aren’t without controversy though. He refers to the energies in living things and phantoms as spirits, and while he has no evidence to support it, he believes the Earth has a spirit, too.
General Hein, the leader of the United States Military Force and the antagonist of Spirits Within, seeks to prevent Aki and Sid’s research. He believes that humanity’s best hope of destroying the phantoms is to fire a newly developed weapon known as the Zeus Cannon at their nest, the Leonid meteor the aliens arrived on. Despite Dr. Sid’s evidence that firing the cannon at the meteor’s crater will be ineffective against the phantoms, Hein won’t be convinced otherwise. He suspects that Aki has carried the alien within her for so long that it’s now influencing her actions. She should be in jail, not pursuing research that could be just what the enemy wants.
On the surface, nothing seems wrong with Spirits Within’s story, which may be why filmmakers, fans, and critics have offered so many alternative explanations for the film’s failure. Some say it was wrongly marketed to Final Fantasy and action movie fans. Others say it was over budget. The story, with its mix of spirituality and science, was contrived and confusing for Western audiences. The poorly written dialog was delivered through stereotypical characters voiced by lackluster actors. It was an original, science-fiction movie for a mature audience in a market traditionally associated with children’s entertainment. The film emphasized the technology used to create it, which distracted from the story and rendered it “as exciting as a shampoo commercial” featuring the protagonist’s hair.
Like the theory presented to Brad Bird, these reasons didn’t explain to me why The Spirits Within failed to capture anyone’s attention beyond its stunning visuals. Some of these “problems” were the reasons that I found the film so intriguing. Other films that contained many of these same flaws were financially successful, Avatar being a prime example. Within days of watching Spirits Within, I would forget what it was about, but it wasn’t because the story it set out to tell was dull or dumb. The film’s foremost problem is its major source of conflict: General Douglas Hein.
Conflicts are the obstacles that the characters face in the pursuit of their goals. A conflict could be as big as the protagonist having to defy her government to save the world or as simple as the hero’s side kick having a grating personality. Conflict is used to get the audience engaged in the story, but more importantly, it helps develop the world and its characters. Often the world’s physical rules and political laws are defined to stand in the protagonist’s way. Conflict also shows how the characters react to stress and how they interact with other people.
There are three problems with the conflicts General Hein creates. First, they’re hardly ever used to develop the world or the characters. For example, in his attempt to convince the United Nations Security Council to fire the Zeus Cannon, he asks, “Can we afford to wait for some crazy invention… that offers no solid evidence that it will destroy the aliens?” Much of the movie takes place in a shielded city where no one seems to be in immediate danger. The answer would seem to be, “Yes, we can wait for a technology that will probably work better than shooting a giant laser at a hole in the ground.” Getting rid of the phantoms would be great, but why the rush? Is there an energy or resource crisis? Are there less privileged cities that aren’t shielded where people die frequently? Are there flaws in the shielding? Are there parts of the world that aren’t wasteland yet? General Hein never elaborates, and no one agrees with him, missing the opportunity to add some depth to the world.
As another example, General Hein sends Captain Gray Edwards and his three-member squad to follow Aki and arrest her if she shows any suspicious behavior. Judging by the experiences of Edwards and his crew, I’d think that at least some of them would follow these orders. Hein doesn’t know that Gray is in love with Aki, but Gray must be a loyal soldier if he’s been entrusted with such an important mission to General Hein’s cause. Besides their knowledge of Gray’s feelings, none of his squad members have a reason to sympathize with Aki. She nearly got all of them killed in the first ten minutes of the movie, and all of them think Aki and Sid’s spirit theory is crazy. Rather than developing complex and interesting relationships with Aki and Hein, Edwards and his squad support Aki’s cause without question and show absolutely no loyalty to General Hein. They must think Hein is crazier than Sid and Aki and rightfully so.
This leads to the second problem in the conflicts General Hein produces: they are ridiculous. Hein wants the phantoms destroyed and has nothing to lose by allowing Aki and Dr. Sid to try, but he jails Aki and her companions and plots against them for no reason. He finds evidence that Aki is under the phantom’s influence, but instead of presenting it to the Council, he carries out a different plan to force them to fire the Zeus Cannon, one where he accidently destroys the city. He ends up destroying the cannon and killing himself in a spectacular display of stupidity. This may as well be a movie about the silly shenanigans of a delusional man and how his actions affect innocent bystanders.
The Council’s decision to allow Aki and Sid to pursue their research is rational, so why is this same council letting such an irrational man retain the position of a military general? It’s suggested that Hein’s hatred for the phantoms, ignited by the death of his wife and child, has blinded him, but that’s not an excuse to let him be a general. No one else thinks so either. Edwards and his squad obviously don’t take him seriously, the Council trusts Dr. Sid’s crazy theory about the Earth having a spirit more than General Hein’s evidence that the Zeus Cannon will kill phantoms, and even the major closest to him questions what he’s doing.
Finally, by entertaining Hein’s existence, the conflicts and questions that actually exist without a mentally unstable character creating them aren’t explored. For example, in one scene of the movie, Aki appears to attract the phantoms. General Hein sees it as evidence that Aki is working for the aliens, but otherwise, no one questions if they should be around Aki, let alone wonders why it happened. The audience is left guessing… or, worse, assuming that it’s only purpose was to motivate General Hein.
Dozens more questions exist that aren’t answered because the movie is too busy explaining General Hein’s convoluted actions. Why would such reasonable Council members want to jail Sid or Aki for believing that the Earth has a spirit or for using the term “spirit”? Why would a scientist that has invented everything that has allowed humans to survive think that he would be jailed in the first place? Why does Edwards and his squad want to associate with people who believe in spirits? Why not fire the Zeus Cannon and allow Aki and Dr. Sid to continue their research?
Aki’s journey to cure herself in order to cure the world had potential to be compelling until a clichéd antagonist was introduced as the main source of conflict. We spend so much time in Hein’s delusional mind that we don’t learn about the world that everyone actually lives in, and none of the conflicts General Hein produces motivates any of the other characters to develop more complex personalities. Final Fantasy didn’t fail because it had humans with 60,000 strands of hair. It didn’t fail because it told an original science fiction story or even because it had poorly written dialog. What Final Fantasy was missing was a relevant conflict that created a story with relatable characters and an understandable world.
Brad Bird and the creators of The Incredibles recognized that not all Spirits Within’s choices were the cause of its demise. The Incredibles would be a success and so would Beowulf, Avatar, and Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. These films, among others, showed that feature length CG films could preach about protecting the planet, have photorealistic art styles, target mature audiences, feature human characters, and still be financially successful. The elements that made Spirits Within different and interesting didn’t destroy Square Pictures. General Hein did.