10/08/2008

The Spirits Within

So, I meant to pick up on intuitive understanding, especially considering the discussion inspired by my previous thoughts, which I'm very pleased about, but I was knocked out for a while by an unfortunate illness, and need to throw up something good. Intuitive understanding and this month's roundtable soon to come!

I'll just cut right to the chase here. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within just wasn't a very good movie. I've talked to a lot of people about the subject, and a lot of people have a lot of difficulty putting their finger on why. The voices were of surprisingly high caliber, the visuals were good for their time (with the exception of the conspicuous lack of facial capture technology), the quality of dialog was usually high enough to not bring down the rest of the movie, and yet...

Despite having no explicit relationship to games in the series, (in the same way that games in the series have no explicit relationship to each other) Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is definitely a “Final Fantasy” movie. For those of you who don't know the movie, the plot can be summed up as such:

The film is set in a post apocalyptic world where humanity has dropped the ball, and been forced to cede mastery of the earth to a more adapted, (arguably) less intelligent species. Humanity is slowly being pushed to extinction. Enter a young woman, who's able to save the day by seeing the planet as the victim of, rather than the giver of pain, but not before she butts heads with the worst that humanity has to offer in terms of selfishness and short-sightedness.

Those of who who've already heard my deal on this probably already know where this is going, but does this sound familiar? That's just a plot synopsis of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, goodness knows I reference it often enough on here.

The similarity is intentional, mind you. Even the opening scene of The Spirits Within is an homage to Nausicaa: the main character running around in the depths of the post-apocalyptic world, weaponless, observing the otherworldly beauty of the supposedly ruined surface of the earth.

Given that Miyazaki can pretty much be credited with single handedly shaping the face of Japanese environmentalism, and, more important to the discussion, popularizing the “Gaia hypothesis” (the suggestion that the earth itself is a kind of living organism), there can be very little doubt that Miyazaki, probably unintentionally, shaped the face of the Final Fantasy series, and by extension, Japanese Role Playing Games in almost all their forms.

(I'm glossing over drawing the line between early Final Fantasy and Miyazaki because it's merely a stepping stone to my point regarding the Final Fantasy film, but if there's enough support, I might go back and write more on the tangential topic of the environmentalism contained in early Final Fantasies)

When a big blockbuster is made out of a book, TV show, game, or comic, and it sucks, it's usually blasted for being somehow “untrue” to the original Intellectual Property from which it was derived (provided the original IP was any good in the first place): League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Starship Troopers, Resident Evil, the list goes on.

And yet, The Spirits Within is the perfect counter example to this trend. Given that Final Fantasy was so heavily shaped by Miyazaki, what could be more representative of the IP than a giant homage to the quintessential Miyazaki film? Nonetheless, the movie just wasn't all that good.

Why?

I could go on and pick apart every little part of The Spirits Within, and talk about how this didn't work, or that could have been better, but that wouldn't really get us anywhere. Instead, I submit, for those of you (myself included) who are Final Fantasy fans but didn't like The Spirits Within, that the Final Fantasy that exists in your head is just better than the actual Final Fantasy. A friend of mine has been telling me for quite a while that the reason why he liked Final Fantasy 6 so much better than any subsequent ones is because Final Fantasy 6 had poor enough graphics, and just the right about of vagueness in the dialog to leave things up to his imagination. He's just exceptionally aware and up front about what I think virtually everyone who grew up playing video games (particularly RPGs) does: Fill in the gaps with their own imagination.

There's very little actual time, if you go back and play the first disc of Final Fantasy 7, devoted to building the relationship between Cloud and Aeris, but the player nonetheless understands what the nature of the relationship is supposed to be, and can fill in the rest. The gravity of Aeris's death is less based on the quality of the relationship built within the confines of the actual game, and much much more on the quality of the relationship that exists within the player's head.

At first glance, this seems so obvious as to be meaningless. Of course the player's experience is incredibly important in how they experience a game. If I hate Japanese RPGs, I'm not going to get invested enough to care about any of the character development, let alone the death of a character part of the way through the game. It's not even that revolutionary or meaningful, I think, to suggest that the reality of the game is less important than the player's projection onto it.

So why did Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within disappoint? I could make an analogy about how trying to duplicate a Miyazaki movie is like trying to cover “Born to Run” with your garage band (read: a bad idea, don't invite comparison), but I think the truth of the matter is that the actual Final Fantasy IP is just not as good as the “Final Fantasy” that exists in the consciousness of the people who saw The Spirits Within.

This isn't just me whining about how fanboys are never satisfied, and how everybody and their mother has a secret Sephiroth/Vincent slash fic under their mattress. (Is it still a slash fic if they're from the same IP? I don't keep up on my definitions.) The fact is, there's a lot less to Metroid than everyone thinks too. I remember not even understanding that Samus without her suit on was the same character in the original Metroid. I thought it was a second character for the two player version that I didn't know how to unlock. She didn't even have a clear physical appearance until Super Metroid, and only that if you could beat the game in under three hours.

Nonetheless, the environments in Super Metroid were so evocative, those with overactive imaginations (a hallmark of the geek) couldn't help but speculate about the events surrounding them. Would their explanations (if they existed) be as good as the vague sense of wonder the game left you with? I doubt it.

How many of you remember being impressed with the romance between Locke and Celes? I know I was. Well, surprise, the number of lines out of either of them that can be assumed to have an even vaguely romantic connotation number under 25. You get a few more lines when you tack on anything he says about Rachel, but at the heart of it, there's nothing there. Nonetheless, people, myself included, ate it up.

So, is this a bad thing? Hardly. Nonetheless, any attempt to flush out all the dark corners of an IP, especially in a movie, is doomed to failure. Those little niggling aspects (sometimes those big niggling aspects) are always better left to the imagination. Just like how the histories I made up for the locations in Legend of Mana were way better than the actual histories, Braid captured the imagination of the Internet community because of how much it left unsaid.

3 comments:

Corvus said...

I'll tell you exactly what the problem with the movie was.

There was a terrible disconnect between the decision to go for photo-realistic rendering and the decision to actually scale back facial expression.

That's right, I said they consciously decided to not animate the faces.

Couple this with the very recognizable talent they hired to provide voices (without basing the characters on the actors' appearances) and you completely shatter the audience's ability to connect to the characters.

Instead of being distracted by all the pretty, your brain spends all of its cycles wondering why this gorgeously rendered movie feels like the old marionette show--Thunderbirds.

When animating characters, you must over-compensate movement to trick the eye/brain into believing they are real, not under-compensate movement.

Alison said...

Slash fan fiction got its name because in online summaries, the characters being coupled would have their names joined by a slash. READ MAI NEW FIC, IT'S HARRY/DRACO!!!11!!one

(This is the commenter previously known as Orange_Fell. Who does not write slash.)

Sestren said...

I should point out that you could find out who Samus actually was by beating the original Metroid under two or three hours. That being said, I haven't actually managed to do it, but I have seen screenshots.

LOL sAMUS/MASTR CHEEF!!1!