[Welcome back to the Evolution of Video Game Movies series. Every week, I will be moving forward through time, starting with the earliest and ending with the most recent of video game movies. I will be detailing the histories of the games and how the films came about, and both my and fan reaction to the adaptations. Practically all of my background information is either common knowledge or from Wikipedia. So without further ado, let's move on to the next film on the list.]
This is the one I've been waiting for. This one was actually the inspiration behind this entire project. So if you're just going to read one of these articles, let it be this one! Warning... this one is a bit personal to me.
The Final Fantasy series, originally released by a company called Square, is one of the most successful and popular Role Playing Game series on consoles. However, this story begins with a completely different company and game series. This story begins with a company called Enix, which was founded in 1975. In 1982, a man named Yuji Horii wanted to take the idea of console RPGs and make them more mainstream and popular. He worked with the Famicom (Nintendo) because of its ability to "save" the game and not have to start all over. In 1986, he and Enix released their most popular title, Dragon Quest (renamed Dragon Warrior in the United States). The game wasn't as popular outside of Japan, mostly for one major reason.
In 1983, Square was founded. It wasn't long, however, before the company started having numerous financial troubles, coming quite close to bankruptcy. And one of the company's designers, Hironobu Sakaguchi, was saddened by his lack of success in the industry. Inspired by the Japanese success of Dragon Quest, Sakaguchi decided to attempt one last game. His swan song, which Square also hoped would help their own financial woes, came across in the form of an RPG. He called this game Final Fantasy, titled such because he assumed it would be his last game. Of course, it was a major success and became the company's biggest title, even overshadowing its inspiration, Dragon Quest/Warrior in the U.S. And the first five games were actually visually designed after anime director Hayao Miyazaki's work.
But the games have not always been translated easily over to U.S. soil. This is where things get a bit confusing. Final Fantasy II was released in Japan in 1988, but it wasn't released until 2003 in America until the release of Final Fantasy Origins on the Playstation. Then Final Fantasy III was released in Japan in 1990, but never left the country until 2006 when it was remade for the Nintendo DS. It actually wasn't until 1991 when Final Fantasy IV was released that America actually got a Final Fantasy II (which was just IV re-numbered). In 1992, Japan saw the release of Final Fantasy V, though it was considered too difficult for American gamers at the time and did not see an American release until it was re-released on Final Fantasy Anthology for the Playstation in 1999. Again, America did not see a Final Fantasy III until 1994, after Final Fantasy VI was released in Japan (also re-numbered for the U.S.).
And then there was the gap. In 1997, Final Fantasy VII was released for the Playstation (the first PSX Final Fantasy), and when it made its move to America, it kept that number. It wasn't until the different aforementioned combo collections later that the gap was filled. Anyway, this game is credited as "the game that sold the Playstation." It also mainstreamed the RPG for gamers outside of Japan. It sold a ridiculous amount of copies in a short amount of time, and has sold over 10 million copies worldwide, making it the biggest selling game of the franchise, and it remains the most popular. It's considered one of the best and most important games of all time, and some argue one of the greatest games ever made. In fact, it's still garnering top spots on lists and critical success, over a decade later. There have been some spin-offs, a movie (which I'll get to in the near future), and years of debate and rumor on a possible future generation remake with better graphics and enhanced gameplay.
The same year, they began working on a movie. The company created Square Pictures, and basically invented the idea of photo-realistic characters in an animated film. In other words, this is the father of the motion capture technique. The film was originally going to be called Gaia, but went through (no kidding) fifty script rewrites. Its story, interestingly enough, shared some similarities to the crazy popular Final Fantasy VII. But not enough. The film took 4 years to finish with a budget of $137 million. It only made $83m back, a devastating blow to the company.
So devastating, in fact, that Square went belly-up, having put everything into this production. Ironic that the franchise that saved them was also the franchise that killed them. They could only do one thing if they wanted to continue--merge with their biggest rival in the gaming industry. In 2003, Square-Enix came into existence. Their first major release was Final Fantasy X... the most popular and successful of the franchise since VII.
MY PERSONAL HISTORY
There are three franchises that I credit with basically changing and/or altering my life to make me who I am today. Of course, most of you probably know the third (and arguably most important) being Harry Potter. The very first was Pokemon. Prior to that series, I was a very casual gamer, with some Mario or Sonic here and there (among other games, of course). But it was Pokemon that first made me addicted to something. I played... I collected... I read online fanfiction--one in particular that took the characters of the show, made them adults, and made the story very dark and thrilling. It was incredibly long and incredibly awesome... I've never been able to find it again, but that did something to me. It introduced me to the online world. I'd never had a reason to really get online before. I was a gamer. But still not a big one. Not until Final Fantasy. Backstory time.
However, I got stuck in the game, and I didn't own a strategy guide. So I went onto that thing called the intarwebz and looked one up. On February 12, 2000, I stumbled across a website that--no hyperbole--changed me forever. There was an online forum (and eventually chat) where so much happened. I made friends, enemies, memories... so much fun, way too much drama. I learned some HTML, practiced with my own website skills, and eventually got into the dark, seedy world of chat-based role playing (like pencil/paper, but online). I never left my room. I was on the computer almost 24/7, and this became even more rampant once Harry Potter came into the equation... but that's another story. I'd say this went on for roughly 4-5 years. I was an internet junkie, even moreso than I am now (scary... terrifying, really).
But back on topic, I continued with the Final Fantasy series, eventually coming to own almost every game that came out from 7+ (including the re-releases of the older games with Chronicles, Anthology, Origins, etc.), and got other games Square released (Xenogears, etc.). I also branched out into other games, as well, but FF was always the favorite. I bought a PS2 just for FFX and a PS3 almost purely for FF12 (though, of course, I did get plenty of other games besides those for each system). Needless to say, it wasn't much of a transition when I eventually came online a lot for my movie fandom, stumbled across the good ol' Blog Cabins, and began blogging myself. None of which probably would have happened had I not gotten as addicted to the internet as I did, mostly thanks to the Final Fantasy series.
So you can imagine the excitement I had when I noticed Final Fantasy was being made into a movie. And not just any movie, but a photo-realistic one that was being advertised everywhere. The main character was even on mainstream magazines as like "Sexiest woman of the year" and whatnot. So I went to the theater when it came out... and did eventually buy it on DVD (it was actually my first DVD, if I recall... or at least one of the first couple). Despite the fact I would find ways to defend it, I still knew it was a godawful "adaptation." So with that being said... let us finally get into why.
As it pertains to a film adaptation for games, Final Fantasy is unique. With only a few exceptions (and practically all of them having come after this film), there are no direct sequels or overarching stories or characters in these games. (Almost) Each game is a brand new adventure with brand new characters. What ties the games together are a series of 'staples'. Each plot typically involves two stories--the one in the foreground and the one behind the scenes. The foreground story is typically political and more reality-based. The one behind-the-scenes is more fantasy-based and mysterious. And when combined together, they make a story rather epic in scale. Then there are chocobos, the giant yellow birds used similarly to horses. There are moogles/mogs, little white creatures with bon-bons on their heads. There's a guy named Cid who owns or has some sort of relation to an airship. There is typically a set of minor characters named Biggs and Wedge. There are random monsters you fight in the wild. There's magic. Along with the magic, there are 'summon' creatures used to help battle (with ones that tend to keep showing up throughout, like Shiva, Ifrit, Bahamut, etc.). And don't forget the epic, beautiful soundtracks by Nobuo Uematsu. And a few other little things.
Out of all of those Final Fantasy staples, this is what the film had: The political/fantasy story mix, and a guy named Cid with an airship... except they couldn't even get those right. The story had both elements, but ultimately did not have an 'epic' scale; as for the name, they spell it "Sid," not "Cid." The story takes place in the future of Earth (the only FF story to take place here), where an alien species had crash landed and taken over. These "Phantoms" can kill and/or infect anyone they come into contact with. Dr. Aki Ross (Ming-Na), working along side Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland), is looking for "spirits"--specific energies that reside within particular living entities (these can be plants, people, etc.)--that, when put together, can help get rid of the phantom menace (sorry, couldn't resist) without destroying the planet's life force. There are seven in total that she's looking for, and she now has six. So she teams up with a special forces team, including Captain Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin), Ryan (Ving Rhames), Neil (Steve Buscemi), and Jane (Peri Gilpin). But the crazy General Hein (James Woods) wants to use a much bigger weapon that might cause more harm than good.
Despite its lack of staples, there are a number of connections that could be made with Final Fantasy VII, as I previously stated. A big, tough black guy (who at one point was supposed to have a gun-arm), a landmass with a giant serpent 'swimming' about, a giant cannon-like weapon that could do an insane amount of damage, a meteor, a climax in a crater, and--of course--Gaia... the "life stream" itself. This is a huge part of not only this film, but also of the aforementioned game. And there might have been one or two FF8 moments, as well (a tearful Zero-G make-out session in the helm of a spaceship to piano music after battling through a cargo bay?). But that's pretty much where any comparisons end.
As an adaptation, this movie fails in almost every regard. And that's highly disappointing since it was going to be pretty damn difficult to make this a poor adaptation. Because, as I said, there's no real story or set of characters to adapt. All it needed to do was take these basic concepts and include them, and it failed to do so. And I believe this is the reason most people dislike the film and the reason it failed at the box-office, due to the backlash from fans. This was not a Final Fantasy film; this was, pure and simple, a cash-in on the title. But does that necessarily make it a bad movie?
If you can get past the "this isn't a Final Fantasy movie" thing, it's really not all that bad. It has a pretty original story and take on the 'alien invasion' plot. The characters aren't all completely flat, and you do get connected to one or two of them. Steve Buscemi does well as the comic relief character. The action, when we have it, isn't too bad. It's not mind-blowing, but it's decent enough to work (this isn't an 'action' movie, really). The film is not perfect by any means, but it works.
Overall, the movie is a terrible "adaptation" of the games, but as its own being, it's pretty decent. In my past defenses of the film, I've stated that Square should have stuck with its original title--Gaia. Had they done this and not tried to capitalize on the success of its flagship franchise, I believe the film would have--ironically--been more successful and better received. In fact, the little Final Fantasy touches it did have would have been seen more as little winks to fans of the company rather than the minimal, weak attempts of tying itself to the games as it was. In other words, the film's biggest true failure... was in its title.