Deleted scenes - including alternate opening sequence with optional commentary (disc 2)
Theatrical trailer - teaser and theatrical trailers
2 Audio commentary - 1) co-director Moto Sakakibara and crew (in japanese with subtitles). 2) by animation director Andy Jones, Editor Christopher Capp and staging director Tani Kunitake
Cast/crew biographies - (disc 2)
22 Featurette - focusing on films design, conceptual art for props, vehicles, costumes and characters and more (disc 2)
Isolated music score - with commentary by composer Elliot Goldenthal
DVD-ROM features - (disc 2)
Awards/Nominations - 30 minute documentary with link-outs to additional featurettes (disc 2)
Final Fantasy : Collectors Edition
Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment .
R4 . COLOR . 102 mins .
M15+ . PAL
A few years ago, tabloid newspapers cheerily blatted out a small story from their news wires speculating on the theory that the future of filmmaking lay in the use of computer-generated thespians - actors that wouldn’t complain, wouldn’t sleep, wouldn’t expect ludicrous salaries, would never take bathroom breaks or days off, never have high-profile affairs splashed all over the world’s front pages and, of course, never grow inconveniently old and spoil all those sequel plans. At the time, most who read such stories laughed them off as more of the usual gee-whiz isn’t-technology-evil stuff that bored newspaper journalists are wont to hammer out - after all, we’d seen computer-generated actors in films like Toy Story, and while they were clever and hugely three-dimensional, they certainly didn’t look or feel like human beings. “Pah,” said US animation company PDI, who promptly went on to create Shrek with its lovingly-crafted humans with ultra-realistic faces and shiny rendered bodies. The human characters in Shrek certainly looked impressive, too - though there was something not-quite-right about them, as though they were computer-game figures with texture-mapped faces pasted on to them - they just didn’t move right. But hey, we weren’t about to complain about the current state of the art.
Neither was the team at Square Pictures. We’ll never know for sure, but we’re willing to bet that they came out of the cinema after seeing Shrek smiling knowingly at each other. Because the project that Square had been working on for years with Columbia Pictures was two months away from release, and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was going to make Shrek’s already-impressive achievement look like a walk in the forest with Jar-Jar Binks.
I see you!!!
For many years, those obsessed with computer and console-based video games (and there are plenty) have been eagerly grabbing up every instalment of the Final Fantasy series of games. A unique concept devised by Japanese company Squaresoft, Final Fantasy is a completely different experience with every release - in other words, unlike most series-based video games such as Tomb Raider, there’s no central hero or heroine - in fact, no regular characters at all. Involving the player in the story through the use of cutting edge CG animation sections that help propel the story, each successive Final Fantasy instalment has pushed the boundaries of what’s possible a step further. The games have sold in the tens of millions, and with Square’s experience and technology evolving at a rapid pace it was only a matter of time before the idea of doing a feature film came up. But it’s only been with the involvement of a large Hollywood studio that the concept could be fully realised; as a result of that involvement, this US$140 million US/Japan co-production got the development time it needed, the sheer resources to pull it off, and the skills of some of Hollywood’s best craftspeople to help make the transition from episodic video game to full-scale movie. Ultimately, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within has little real connection to video games at all; this is a new story with new characters, done in a decidedly cinematic style. And it’s absolutely magnificent.
Cool 3D mp3 visualisations
Don’t think for a second, though, that Columbia’s involvement means that you’re going to be watching a nice, neat Hollywood story. Because you’re certainly not - the screenplay, written by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi and tweaked by US writers Al Reinert and Jeff Vintar, is very much in the spirit of both Japanese sci-fi and spirituality, borrowing heavily from western cinema along the way but never quite willing to state the bleeding obvious. As a result of this, some may find Final Fantasy a bit puzzling on first viewing - but then, that could just be the “wow factor” at work, the incredible visuals distracting many from the ongoing plot and background information.
Set in 2065 on an Earth that’s been devastated by war - not amongst humans, but against alien invaders - Final Fantasy tells the story of Dr Aki Ross, a scientist working with the somewhat dry Dr Sid to try and neutralise these aliens (known as “phantoms”, they kill any human they touch) by the only known means; to find the eight spirits that, when combined with each other, will produce a force that will neutralise the phantoms and send them packing back to Phantomville before their transparent red globular evil presence destroys the entire planet. However, it wouldn’t be sci-fi adventure without the Official Evil Guy, and here he comes in the form of Military General Hein, a square-jawed and stubborn man who thinks Aki and Sid’s talk of spirits and the Earth’s “Gaia” is silliness of the highest order. He has another answer. And it is, of course, a Great Big Gun. The “Zeus Cannon”, he argues, should be fired at the Phantoms’ home planet to wipe them out, and damn the repercussions. Aki knows that her answer is the right one, and the only one that can restore Earth’s delicate balance - but getting past General Hein, even with a trusty team of James-Cameron-movie-like commandos, isn’t going to be easy.
Aha, so this is Anthrax
If the above sounds silly, that’s because in text form it probably is. But translated to the screen via the astonishing visuals on offer here, everything works - the animators and filmmakers have crafted an incredibly believable universe for their characters to play out the story in, with imagery so rich every frame looks like the most luscious matte painting imaginable (there are, by the way, some pretty damn luscious computer-created matte “paintings” on offer throughout in the backgrounds of many of the scenes). And then placed into this eye-popping world are the characters - the film’s truly remarkable achievement. Totally computer-rendered from scratch, these characters are the most believable, realistic renditions of the human form seen to date in 3D animation. Everything’s been thought of, from body shape and movement (far more naturalistic than anything that’s gone before, it’s still not 100% perfect in places - but give them time!) to hair, skin, eyes, mouth movements; at times the results really do look like The Real Thing (except, of course, for the fact that the environment they’re in is so unlike reality). Some scenes and certain characters do look like they were rushed (even with a four-year production, there’s still that looming deadline) but for the most part, this effort sweeps aside all that’s gone before it. A great deal of attention has been paid to the main characters, with Aki and Sid benefiting most - Aki’s expressive eyes and constantly-moving hair, or Sid’s beard and skin texture. But there’s so much eye candy here in both the characters and the scenery that even after a third viewing you’re still gobsmacked at the sheer detail of it all.
What pulls it all together, though, is the fact that old-school cinematic values are held in such high esteem on this production. “Camera” movements and positions recall classic cinema of old, the whole thing’s loaded with space-noir atmosphere and matinee adventure, and the music score (by Elliot Goldenthal, who wrote the score for Alien 3 amongst many others) is suitably, wonderfully epic.
It’s worth bearing in mind that the creators of Final Fantasy were not trying to create reality out of silicon per se; these “actors”, by virtue of their invulnerability and flexibility, can do things no human actor can do, and that completely serves both the story and the setting. They’re voiced by known “names” such as Alec Baldwin, Steve Buscemi, James Woods and Donald Sutherland - with ER actor Ming-Na perfect as Aki Ross - but if you didn’t know that, you may very well never spot the voices. That’s a credit to the animators, who’ve invested their creations with enough personality and warmth to avoid the audience being distracted by Baldwin Syndrome or anything similar.
“Real” actors need not be alarmed, of course - this successful exercise in computer drama certainly isn’t going to become the new way of doing things in Hollywood or anywhere else. But for those who like their adventure or sci-fi to transport them completely to another environment, Final Fantasy is the silicon dream of choice.
Transferred to high definition video from the final digital master computer files, and then scaled down to DVD resolution, this 16:9 enhanced transfer (at a 1.85:1 aspect ratio) is superlative in every way, and there’s simply nothing to complain about - put simply, it presents the film with better clarity and immediacy than most would have seen in the cinema. Obviously there are no nasties like scratches, dust marks or other kinds of film damage to worry about, and the colour and contrast balance is exactly as intended by the filmmakers. A lot of use is made of shadow and darkness throughout the film, and it all comes up beautifully on this disc; DVD is the perfect medium for Final Fantasy, needless to say. The PAL version looks noticeably nicer than the NTSC disc, especially in the smooth-motion department.
Ok, who's got the laser pointers?
One thing you will notice that may surprise you, given the completely digital nature of what you’re watching, is a noticeable amount of film grain. As suspected, this was intentionally added in post-production, a technique sometimes used to give otherwise digitally-pure CG scenes a more “cinematic” look. Surprisingly, it works well - if you’re used to seeing pristine CG on DVD with titles like Shrek or A Bug’s Life, you’ll be surprised at just how natural this technique can make an image look.
Stored on a fully-packed dual-layered disc, the main feature scores a very early layer change at the 16:45 mark (the rest of the first layer is used for one of the extra features). The change is quickly navigated, but placed just a few frames too early to avoid cutting off background sound effects prematurely.
If you want some solid audio to show off your new system with, this is the disc for you. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack was sound-designed and co-mixed by Randy Thom, one of the most skilled and adventurous audio people currently working - and it’s very, very good. Full use is made of the surround stage throughout, with the myriad effects (both big and tiny), explosions and creature noises flown around the room in a completely involving way. There’s plenty of subwoofer action here as well, though those listening through more modest systems won’t miss out - a good deal of the bass content has been mixed to the main front channels as well.
The US version of the disc defaulted to a Dolby Surround track; here, that track’s not even included - no loss at all, as the 2.0 track on the US disc was indistinguishable from the 5.1 track when the latter was downmixed. A Spanish 5.1 track is included as well, replacing the French audio on the US disc.
Columbia Tristar has come through for region 4 Final Fantasy customers bigtime with this release; everything (and we mean everything) from the US two-disc set is here bar a few unnecessary trailers for other films - and there’s even a bonus that region 1 customers don’t get. Structurally the region 4 replicates its US cousin almost exactly. The same excellent fully animated menus (and the same clever segue from the Columbia Tristar logo to the menu on disk 1, along with the “Aki Meets The Real World” into to disk 2) are included.
The copious extra features for Final Fantasy are spread over two discs, with the first disc containing quite a bit more than just the movie itself.
Audio Commentary - Moto Sakakibara (co-director), Hiroyuki Hayashida (sequence supervisor), Tatsuro Maruyama (sets and props lead artist) and Takoo Noguchi (phantom supervisor): The first thing that’s important to mention about this commentary, recorded by key members of the production team the day after the film was completed, is that it’s in Japanese. Like Lars von Trier’s commentary on Dancer In The Dark, you get a subtitle translation of the ongoing commentary if you don’t speak the language (the subtitles on the Pal version, incidentally, are white instead of the much nicer SBS-yellow used on the region 1 disc). The second thing that has to be mentioned about this commentary is that it’s HUGE fun - an absolute must to listen to, with the enthusiasm of the four involved totally infectious as they impart huge amounts of interesting info about the production and the film’s story itself, and have what sounds like a damn good time doing it.
Audio Commentary - Andy Jones (animation director), Chris Capp (editor), Tani Kunitake (staging director): A more technical and substantially more restrained commentary, this one’s also a hugely interesting listen (and is in English, by the way!) and while the three production team members here go into more technical detail on occasion, they never talk above the heads of the audience.
Isolated Score With Commentary - Elliot Goldenthal (composer): The wonderful orchestral score (with electronics and the occasional vocal) performed by the London Symphony Orchestra is provided completed isolated from the dialogue and myriad sound effects in the movie. It’s a terrific, richly dramatic score and makes for great listening; to fill in the silent bits, Goldenthal provides some commentary about his composing process. Note that this track is a 2.0 surround track only.
Boards/Blasts: Incredibly, this is a complete but slightly shorter version of the film (running around 81 minutes) that offers you the chance to watch the film with some of the rough renders, animatics and storyboards edited in at appropriate places - a kind of story board gallery on-the-fly, and then some. You can also select a “production commentary” to go with this (informative, if sometimes a bit sporadic) - and best of all, you can also select “Subtitled Factoids”, which uses a subtitle stream to display scene identifications and myriad trivial facts about the film’s story background and the production itself. There’s some amusing stuff in here; it’s a great idea.
Theatrical Trailers: The theatrical teaser trailer and the final trailer, both 16:9 enhanced (with pristine picture quality) and with 5.1 audio. Unlike the US disc, these play consecutively from separate titles on the DVD; the region 4 disc omits a trailer for the Final Fantasy X video game as well as some Columbia Tristar cross-promotion-for-other-DVDs trailers - no great loss.
Aki Photo Shoot: Unless this was hiding as an “easter egg” on the region 1 disc and we missed it, this bizarre extra is a PAL-disc exclusive. (Note: we've since been kindly informed by several readers that this feature is indeed included on the R1 version of the disc as a hidden "easter egg"). It basically amounts to a minute or so of cross-faded still “photos” of Aki… in a bikini! She is then “undressed” down to her wireframe skeleton, before we see a couple of poses in skin-tight leather. All this is backed by new-age piano music. Odd stuff indeed.
Dolby Digital City Trailer: It’s baaaaaaack…
Behind you! Look behind you.
Special mention has to be made of what we’ve dubbed The Voice Of Disc Two, an unidentified woman with an elegantly clipped British accent who walks you through the operation of some of the interactive sections of this disc. From here on in she will be referred to as “The Voice”! All Disc 2 video is 16:9 enhanced unless otherwise noted.
Documentary: A 31-minute documentary with a difference, this capsule walk through the production of the film is a bit cursory and very much in the style of those press-kit-type featurettes you’re so familiar with - only here, as The Voice politely tells you at the start, you will see little icons pop up in the bottom left corner every so often, at which point you can hit the “enter” key on your remote and get some extra footage related to what’s being discussed at the time. That extra footage often also has some production commentary to go with it, which is indicated by a blue buzzy circle in the top right corner and accessed, when available, by the audio button on your remote. The entire documentary is “framed” by constantly moving 2D graphics, which may annoy some; the doco plays automatically once the disc is inserted if the viewer does not intervene when the first menu pops up.
Optional Filmmaker Commentary: This menu item leads you to a screen where The Voice walks you through the method of accessing the commentary fragments mentioned above.
Character Files: About 15 minutes’ worth of video in seven sections, each of which provides a potted history of a main character in the film, as well as who rendered them, who voiced them, and their vital statistics (!). Great fun, and even more so for being narrated by The Voice. Footage is from a variety of sources, both from the film itself and other sources.
Vehicle Scale Comparisons: Short video segments offering “Details” on three of the vehicles in the film. Narrated by The Voice.
Final Fantasy Shuffler™: A great idea badly executed, this basically involves the film’s conference-room scene chopped up into a dozen segments, which you can preview and “select”, adding each in turn to a list of clips kept in your player’s memory. You can then play them back in order. Two problems: firstly, the transition from clip to clip is far from seamless. And second, the scene makes pretty much no sense in any configuration except the order in which it appears in the film! The Voice does a suitably sultry introduction to this section (with, not surprisingly, a Sony remote used as an example!) The "trademark" symbol next to this section's name implies that this may not be the last time we see the Shuffler™!
Trailer Explorations: A four and a half minute discussion of the evolution of the film’s trailers by producer Jun Aida. Mono audio.
The Gray Project: A look at early experiments with character design, using Square’s archival footage (some of which is of extremely low quality, understandably). This one’s in 4:3, by the way.
More Boards/Blasts: Two minutes more along the same lines as disc 1’s Boards/Blasts feature, but this time without commentary or “factoids”.
Matte Art Explorations:
Welcome, to Jurassic Park
An often-fascinating six-minute look at the creation of the computer-rendered 2D matte paintings done for the film. Video is in 4:3 mode.
Joke Outtakes: Or, Even Animators Have A Sense Of Humour. This section contains a handful of very short - and sadly unfinished - “gag reel” moments along the same line as the “outtakes” at the end of recent Pixar films. There are some funny moments here, but don’t expect much in the way of video quality.
Compositing Builds: A seven and a half minute reel of stuff that shows the various processes used in the compositing stage of the production. Not narrated, but backed by some rather crunchy slow techno music instead.
Original Opening: A rough draft of an alternate opening for the film, possibly used for previews earlier in production. There’s some good-quality footage here, but some of it is VERY rough. Running for a shade under five minutes, audio is in mono and video is in 4:3 mode.
Aki’s Dream: All the dream sequences from the movie edited together as a kind of “mini-movie”, with 16:9 video and 5.1 audio. It doesn’t really work as a stand-alone entity - but hey, it looks good, so why not?!
Easter Eggs: There are three that we know of on this disc. The best (and most talked-about) is Kelly’s Thriller - a two and a half minute parody of Michael Jackson’s Thriller music video, featuring the fully-rendered cast of Final Fantasy! The credit crawl’s almost longer than the content, but it’s great fun. This one’s accessed via the icon at the bottom of the second extras menu, and is therefore not an “easter egg” per se (it’s also mentioned in the features list on the back cover); to find out how to access the other two (far less interesting) “eggs”, see DVDnet’s Easter Egg page.
DVD-ROM Content: A fairly decent DVD-ROM effort that tries for a little more than the bog-standard play-the-movie-and-link-to-the-corporate-site stuff so beloved of so many major studios, this Macromedia Director-written effort includes the ability to play a “Boards/Blasts” type version of the film in a small window, with lines from the script popping up as you go; there’s also a PDF running sheet, a screensaver, a “virtual tour” of Square Pictures (where some interesting stuff lurks, video-based and otherwise) and… web links! The audio level in the interactive-film section was brutally, speaker-destroyingly loud on the machine we ran it on (using a Soundblaster 32 sound card) - be warned!
The movie’s startlingly innovative visually and stylistically, offering a rich sci-fi story that takes some leaps of faith and imagination to properly click, but which is well worth the patience - and in the meantime, you’ve got some amazing images to look at and a superlative soundtrack, all beautifully transferred to DVD. The first disc, with its excellent commentaries, music-only track and other unique features, is worth the purchase price all on its own; the inclusion of a second extras disc is the icing on the cake, even if not all of its content is first-rate (and a lot will appeal mainly to the technical types amongst us). One of this reviewer’s favourite films of 2001, Final Fantasy has been exceptionally well treated on DVD.