Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (Elliot Goldenthal)

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Destined to go down as one of the largest cinematic flops in history, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was a disappointment to series fans and neophytes alike, and nearly bankrupted Squaresoft, leading to its merger with perennial rival Enix not long after. Fans of the Final Fantasy video games were dismayed by the lack of continuity between the games and the film; aside from a Cid and a vague lifestream-esqe concept, it was totally unrelated to the franchise. Even in the context of games that regularly reinvented themselves and only ever shared certain thematic details and concepts, the dark science fiction thriller Square produced seemed a tonal mismatch, as if they had taken exactly the wrong lesson from their previous games and decided to make a 90-minute Final Fantasy VIII-style cutscene. Fans hoping for a film version of Final Fantasy VII, and sci-fi fans with little to connect them to the concept, stayed away in droves.

This feeling of disconnect extended to the film’s score as well; those same fans were dismayed to see composer Nobuo Uematsu’s name missing from the marquee. Uematsu had scored every main game in the series himself with striking music rooted in the vernacular of popular songwriting with a fantasy twist, but 2001 would ultimately be the year he began to disassociate himself from Final Fantasy, collaborating with others for the first time on Final Fantasy X and foregoing The Spirits Within entirely. Yet, in retrospect, the decision makes sense; Uematsu himself will freely admit that he is not cut out for film scoring, and his muddled effort on the later Advent Children animation stands as a stark example of this. The producers instead hired American composer Elliot Goldenthal, best known for his muscular sci-fi work on blockbusters like Alien 3, Demolition Man, and Batman Forever.

Goldenthal had never played the console Final Fantasies, and made no attempt to bring any of Uematsu’s themes or styles to the big screen. In light of the nature of the film, with its tenuous connection to the franchise as a whole (there really wouldn’t be room for anything other than “The Prelude” or perhaps “Final Fantasy” in the film itself), this decision was a wise one. Instead, the composer brought an extremely varied and complex sci-fi sound to the film, building on his pedigree to produce a dark and gothic score that mixes a chorus and pounding percussion with lighter and more melodic moments. Many of Goldenthal’s trademarks, like whirling strings (as heard in the opening track), wailing bass (“Code Red”), and towering dissonance (“Toccada and Dreamscapes”) are in evidence as the composer sought to support the bleak images onscreen.

The score’s main theme is much lighter and more mystical, led by woodwinds for a much earthier sound than the rest of the score. Heard in “The Kiss” and “A Child Remembered,” this theme is largely seperate from the rest of the material until it joins the more dissonant and thunderous sound in the stunning “Adagio and Transfuguration” before forming the basis of “The Dream Within.” It is perhaps the closest that Goldenthal would ever come to writing a traditional love theme, and it shows that despite his proclivity for avant-garde symphonics, he has the capacity for immense tonal beauty when he wants to write it.

Goldenthal’s carefully-produced album pares the score down to 50 minutes of highlights, with relentless action balanced out with occasional statements of the love theme. The music is almost entirely acoustic save for an electronic pulse in “Dead Rain” which serves as counterpoint to a downbeat and minor-key version of the love theme, and Goldenthal throws a large choir into the mix often. The choral histrionics in “Dead Rain” and “Zeus Cannon,” are perhaps the closest that Uematsu and Goldenthal come to the same inspiration, with both men clearly inspired by Wagner to raise an immense wordlessly choral ruckus. The final rock song is completely out of synch with the rest of the album, but not entirely wretched.

With Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Goldenthal produced a film score, not video game music. Anyone looking for Uematsu’s sound–or that of most other video game composers, for that matter–will be disappointed. Fans of powerful, complex music–and fans of Goldenthal himself, of course–will be delighted with the album, which stands out as the best part of the film. Not only that, but The Spirits Within also offers Elliot Goldenthal’s powerful style in a more tuneful and conventional presentation than many of his more experimental works; it completely lacks the occasionally schizophrenic nature of works like Titus and plays down the raw atonality as compared to Alien 3.

Ultimately, listeners’ appreciation of Goldenthal’s distinctive style, and how much they mind the absence of Nobuo Uematsu’s characteristic Final Fantasy sound, will color their response to the music. Taken on its own terms, it is perhaps the composer’s finest and most accessible work.

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