I remember seeing this with friends when it came out, way back at the start of the new millennium. Among my friends (and we're all video game nerds) it was an event movie, and we were excited about it. Not only was it linked to one of our favourite video game series, it was also, it's been said, the first time a feature length CGI movie attempted to create realistic looking human beings. I think that for the latter reason it was somewhat of an event movie for the non-nerdy general public, but I can't quite remember. At any rate, it bombed horribly, and Squaresoft swore that they would never make another film. I remember walking out of the theatre thinking that it was visually impressive but fairly weightless. Nearly a decade later I decided to give it another shot, since I was feeling old and nostalgic enough. That might have coloured my vision, but on my recent viewing I found that it's really not that bad.
There is a fair amount of badness to it. Spirits Within plays out a like a Squaresoft video game. That's to say that it's sappy, mostly obvious, and that the dialogue is pretty ridiculous. Characters will not only give bad dialogue, but dialogue that doesn't quite follow the train of thought. It comes to feel like a bad translation, even though it was written in English by English people. Supporting characters deliver lines at each other rather than interact with each other, which is pretty much, well, like Final Fantasy games. Also, the male lead, though voiced by Alec Baldwin, looks unmistakably like Ben Affleck. Which couldn't be more irritating.
Facial expressions are mostly blank. All the characters look like they're trying to hold back fits of laughter, since there's a motionlessness to the lips that looks like restraint when coupled with their calmed eyes. Since we're on the CGI effects, it's clearly a movie heavily laden with the pressure to wow you with the best CGI they could muster. It suffers from that, but, surprisingly, after the initial need to wow you has been satiated, starts to pick up about half way through the film. At that same time, the lame dialogue starts to get replaced with plot and sci-fi action. Much of the CGI is actually very good - the ghostly x-ray aliens look fantastic, as do the environments. The lighting is great, and there's an atmosphere to this movie that I found I really liked - which explains why by the ending I realised I was actually pretty entertained and it was better than I remembered. Atmosphere is the most important thing for me when I watch movies; all else can suffer, but if a good atmo can be maintained, I'm engrossed.
As a plus, the bonus feature disc is actually pretty interesting, since you get a documentary making-of that allows you to hit enter on your remote and watch little side-documentaries if you come across a certain aspect of the filmmaking that you'd like to hear a bit more about. It's much more interactive than I'm used to. There's also a section of the disc where you can choose the order of the shots in a certain scene and play at being an editor.
So: Feels like Final Fantasy - a guilty pleasure. More atmosphere and heart than I anticipated.