Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within had blockbuster status written all over its CG faces. Square, a company known for fantastic computer graphics in its Final Fantasy series was set to pioneer a digital film that would visually compete with reality itself. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within received plenty of mainstream buzz. The film's ambitious visuals sparked discussion on everything from the 60,000 individual hairs on Aki Ross' head to the notion that digital actors could one day replace real actors. But something went wrong. To date, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within has grossed a little over 30 million dollars at the U.S. box office - a meager amount for a film with a reported 100 million + dollar budget. So why did the potential summer blockbuster flop at the box office?
Not Enough Fantasy
The Final Fantasy videogame series is known to transport players into entirely new worlds full of new civilizations, magic, and technology. Very little of that golden foundation is found in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. FF:TSW is set in a desolate, post apocalyptic, science fiction world - everything that won't be found in the FF game series. Square's attempt to create the most realistic CG film limited the film to a realistic landscape that it couldn't escape. No airships, no magic, no cultures, none of the fantasy that's made Final Fantasy a hit is found in the film.
FF:TSW was marketed as a sci-fi action movie. The trailer showed all action in a "humans vs. aliens" manner. The sci-fi "us vs. them" action premise can turn off a huge audience sector, and won't draw in the female crowd. The marketing eliminated anyone uninterested in sci-fi or CG. The love story bit between Aki and Gray could have been emphasized in a different trailer to draw a broader audience. The praise from Ebert and Roeper - two critics that liked the film - could have been used with several dramatic moments from the film to draw a more adult audience. FF:TSW marketing had the tech heads and young males cornered - just not anyone else.
Final Fantasy: TSW has major star power that could have been advertised in print, online, or television media, and it wasn't. The voice actors are in the top tier of Hollywood, but no names were dropped in FF's marketing. Big hollywood names can draw previously uninterested people into theaters to see their favorite star. The name game might not have saved FF:TSW, but it wouldn't have hurt.
Lack of Love
There was a slice of love between Dr. Aki Ross and Gray Edwards in FF: TSW, but not enough to care about it. The film never allows the audience to know any more about Aki and Gray's relationship. Love stories are a golden standard in the Final Fantasy series. Who could forget the Cloud, Aeris, and Tifa love triangle? Square's latest, Final Fantasy X, lets sparks fly between title characters Tidus and Yuna. The lack of a decent sized love story limited FF:TSW's audience. The film's constant crisis and Aki's risk of death is never used as a love story catalyst. The kiss between Aki and Gray in FF:TSW just isn't enough to propel a love story.
If audiences weren't wowed by FF: TSW's visuals they certainly weren't wowed by its script. FF: TSW has its moments. The characters engage in some tense and brief comical banter, but most of the dialogue is quite plain. General Hein dictates the use of the Zues cannon, but when he realizes the severity of the cannon's power he gives a simple, "What have I done?" The Phantoms didn't have much of a backstory and are about the plainest aliens one can find in a film. The characters weren't much different. Each character had only the team camaraderie to build their relationships. FF: TSW's script has a backbone, but not enough meat to match its visuals.
Plain and Simple
The above reasons might not have anything to do with Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within's box office performance. The simplest reason is that a mass audience simply wasn't ready to take a realistic computer generated film seriously. Most CG films that have reached mass audience appeal in the U.S. are based on comedic characters and premises. The animation medium isn't well respected as a dramatic storyteller in the United States, and FF:TSW didn't seem to buck the trend.
It's Not Over
Square made a big gamble. They may have lost the battle, but not the war. The Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within DVD will make its way to a whole new retail market. People interested but not compelled enough to head to theaters will be hard pressed not to buy a decent priced DVD. The DVD market has proved to be a big money maker, with weak box office performers receiving a second life on DVD format. The rental market is another place where Square can recoup on losses. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is a landmark film that built a foundation for photo-realistic CG animation. Square proved to the world that it can be done - now they have to prove that it can be done better.
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