Oh. Oh sweet merciful fal’Cie. What the hell did I watch? My fiance and I went to the Alamo Drafthouse to see the Funimation Films presentation of ‘Empire of Corpses’. A title that sounded quite promising. In fact, the whole idea was quite promising. A world where Victor Frankenstein’s experiment gave rise to an entire society built on and around essentially zombie slaves powered by steampunk-style “NecroWare” that program the reanimated corpses for a variety of tasks from simple clerical jobs, to military deployment. Doesn’t that sound awesome? Doesn’t that seem like there are a ton of cool stories to tell in a world like that? I bet you’ve already thought of some. And I also bet that they are WAY more interesting than anything this movie does with the premise. /sigh
The film comes to us from the works of the late Project Itoh (real name Satoshi Itoh) whose death in 2009 inspired the creation of a trilogy of animated films based on his science-fiction novels. The last of which, published posthumously, was Empire of Corpses in 2012. The trilogy of films will also feature “Harmony”, based on the novel of the same name that was given a special citation by the Phillip K Dick Award and will be shown state-side in late May, and “Genocide Organ” which currently stands as yet to be completed. But surely with a stack of awards including a special citation from the Phillip K Dick Awards (a special citation being code for ‘throwing you a bone without actually winning’), surely the story will be an immensely riveting tale? Won’t it? Well, how should I begin?
The film begins with medical student John Watson (Yes, THAT John Watson) resurrecting his dead best friend as a living corpse that he names Friday (Not that Friday, but close) who he trains to be his servant, bodyguard, and to write down everything he sees and hears in a journal. He is recruited by ‘M‘ the head of British secret intelligence who has a secretary named Moneypenny and teamed with a famed British soldier named Burnaby to go to Afghanistan (under the fake cover of being a field surgeon) to find a rogue Russian scientist Alexei Karamazov who is supposedly in possession of Victor Frankenstein’s notes on how to create a living corpse that has a soul like he did with “The One”. Along the way Watson meets up with other characters like former president Ulysses S. Grant, Thomas Edison, and Hadaly Lilith (who later renames herself Irene Adler).
If you haven’t gathered from the copious amounts of links in that last paragraph, there isn’t a single character that is based on, inspired by, or flat out IS, some sort of fictional or real historic person. The only person who possibly escapes this fate is Friday whose name draws inspiration from Robinson Crusoe but that where the similarities end. This is mostly because we are told next to nothing about who Friday was in life beyond being John Watson’s best friend and potential lover (never confirmed, but there’s more than enough evidence to have that interpretation of their relationship) and that Friday was exceptional interested in Corpse Reanimation that he built an illegal lab to conduct NecroWare experiments in and then bequethed it Watson under the explicit details to ‘desecrate his grave’ and to bring him back to life.
Beyond that the characterization is all over the map. Burnaby is fiercely devoted to bringing back the notes of Victor Frankenstein because that’s the mission for queen and country and all that, until the veteran soldier sees another spy that he had grown close to (via minute long montage) die and be ressurected that he immediately makes it his life goal to see the notes completely destroyed. Almost every character in a cast of a dozen is given at least one big plot twist/betrayal/reveal through the course of the movie, to the point where you almost need a chart to keep it all straight.
The Story (Spoilers Ahead!)
The first half of the movie is an entirely different beast than the second half. The first half is the pursuit of Victor Frankenstein’s notes. It tackles a lot of questions that you’ve probably already seen done and done better in things like Fullmetal Alchemist. Is knowledge for the sake of knowledge an end that justifies any mean? Where is the moral line when it comes to science and knowledge (Especially in a world where reanimating the dead to become waiters, butlers, soldiers, etc to do the bidding of the living is standard practice). The pursuit has Watson, Friday, Burnaby, and the Russian Spy Nikolai Krasotkin pursuing Karamazov in the high hills of… somewhere? They start in Afghanistan and end up in what looks like Tibet. On foot. Anyway, Karamazov has perfected a new form of living corpse that has problem solving skills, faster reaction time, and near living intellect (Watson tortures one into almost speaking at one point – because Watson’s leading theory is that language is only possible with a soul. Also that a soul weights 23 grams that vanishes from your body when you die.) They find Karamazov in a scene that is eerily familiar to Apocalypse Now when they first find the encampment of Colonel Kurtz, and have a nice meal with him where they discuss philosophy and whatnot. Then they find out the secret of Karamazov’s new zombies: He isn’t resurrecting the dead. He’s killing the living. By putting a living person in a trance with music and opium then ripping into their spinal cord and programming them with NecroWare, you create a far more capable undead. Karamazov says Frakenstein’s notes are in Japan, Burnaby is horrified, Watson wonders why Karamazov is such a wussy that he didn’t keep experimenting on the subjects to find the truth of the soul (He’s apparently done this murder procedure to an entire village at this point). Then to… uh… prove a point I guess? Karamazov turns himself into a zombie. Awkward. You honestly could have made this the whole movie in a big send up to Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness. The isolated village of the dead, stretch out the mystery of the secret of how to make the new zombies, big reveal at the end with a realization that some costs are too high. The end. Good flick. But no, it keeps going. Clearly we’re building up to something big. Oh well, off to Japan.
The Japan ‘chapter’ is fairly short. They meet another historical figure, they find out what lab the notes are being kept in, and they break in. Inside they find engineered zombies that can carry diseases like cholera as biological weapons. This matches something earlier in the movie where there are exploding zombies that are engineered to break down their own body fat into glycerin so they explode. Again, another neat idea. Zombie arms race. Would explain the need for the notes. But no, that’s not where this is going either. Watson finds the notes, but instead of destroying them he has Friday analyze them (Because Zombies are also computers that can break electronic locks and crap) Because at the end of the Japan chapter, we get zombies going on a rampage, the lab in flames, Watson almost dead and the notes being stolen by none other than “The One” aka Frankenstein’s Monster.
This is where the plot completely goes off the rails, so let me bottom line some of the weirdness that transpires for the next 45 minutes. The One is making zombies go insane using massive analytical computers built out of human brains in various cities while ‘looking for something’ before he is captured by ‘M’ so that M who is now a bad guy for some reason can create his perfect utopia of everyone being a zombie so there will be no war. Watson does more experiments on Friday, Friday goes insane and tries to kill Watson but doesn’t, Friday might have a soul but nothing comes of it. Burnaby gets drunk, and hits Watson for not destroying the notes. Hadaly is a robot that is identical to a human but with no emotions (ie no soul) and wants a soul. No, we’re never really going to go into that. Or how a robot got made. Or why we’re relying on zombies when robot technology is available. Zombies apparently can turn other people into zombies by biting them, but only sometimes when the plot necessitates it for M’s utopia idea. Before that? No turning people to zombies via biting.
So after all that mess of confusing plot lines that go mostly nowhere, how do we end this? What is the grand idea that so many other ideas were set aside or discarded for? Well, the heroes rush from San Francisco to London in a few hours using the super-hyper powerful USS Nautilus (YES. THAT NAUTILUS.) that has been retrofitted by Hadaly’s father… Thomas Edison (Just go with it, movies almost over). There they stop M’s evil plan of turning everyone into a zombie, while Burnaby tries to shut off the power to the whole evil lab by… battling the Universal Movies’ Frankenstein Monster who is guarded the power station for some reason.
Once M has been defeated, now it’s time for the REAL villain to show up and enact his REAL villainous plot: The One breaks out his chains, and uses Victor Frankenstein’s notes and brain (that M had for some reason) to… ugh… /sigh… suck the souls out of everyone on the planet so he can uses them as a massive… um… thing to resurrect his bride’s soul that was somehow trapped in Victor’s brain into Hadaly’s body, then transfer himself into Friday’s body.
No. I’m not joking. One hour and forty minutes of story was actually all about just getting Frankenstein’s monster laid. That’s the groundbreaking idea that this movie had for this premise.
Of course, the power of ‘not wanting to lose Friday’ causes Watson to defeat The One, who may or may not have died in the tower falling down (We see him get up from the ground as the tower falls apart around him), there’s an almost kiss with Hadaly and Watson before Burnaby who repeats his superpower of somehow never dying or getting hurt no matter what happens to him shows up to interrupt. The movie ends proper with a repeat of the initial experiment that ressurected Friday at the start, only with opium and music as Watson does the ‘turn the living into a zombie’ thing Karamazov showed him so he can hopefully understand Friday better. The End.
Only not really, because there’s another scene after the credits that fans of this trainwreck call ‘The Real Ending’ which is honestly just Watson and Sherlock Holmes running around, Watson has no memory of anything that happened, Friday stalks him like a scorned lover but apparently now has a soul, Hadaly has changed her name to Irene Adler, and Burnaby is still an ass. The “REAL” end.
Despite everything, the film is really pretty. Supposedly the studio that worked a lot on things like Attack on Titan worked on this film (if the advertising is to be believed) and the polish really shows. The detail to all the little steampunk gadgets really helps sell the setting and the look of the world. The zombies seem to vary in detail depending on how many are in the scene but they do a good job animating the dead to look like they are just puppets and that helps a bunch when it comes to visually seeing why things like the newer zombies or Friday are different or special just in the way they move or stand.
Character designs are a little less inspirational. You have your standard bishie protagonists, Hadaly has torpedo boobs to such an nth degree I was half expecting a joke about that being where her power cells are stowed or something, the villains look completely stock, and the only one who looks out of place in Burnaby who honestly from his face to his build to his animation just feels like he belongs more so in a Studio Ghibli flick than this.
The Voice Acting
We did get to see the Funimation dub of the film at our screening which was a welcome surprise since the Alamo Drafthouse’s website did not list any of the English cast. It might just be me but there didn’t seem to be any sort of stand out performances for this movie. My fiance however enjoyed J. Michael Tatum’s performance as Burnaby, but also stated that she couldn’t help continuously thinking of a certain Butler the entire time despite the completely different and fairly thick accent Tatum put on the film. On a whole, the acting was good. Nothing great to me, but also no where I could point and say “WTF is that?” Except maybe with the Russian accents. Those seemed to be a bit… Hetalia meets James Bond villain. But hey, that’s only for the first third of the movie.
I said it as soon as the house lights went up in the theater. This film is a hot mess. Plot twists come out of nowhere and are legion in number. The film can’t decide what it wants to be about. Is it a monster movie? Is there some kind of message it wants to convey? What message? What is the primary conflict? The One, despite being mentioned a few times, doesn’t enter the film until the halfway point. His character is never explored nor are we ever treated to any motivation or character for him beyond exposition dumps from other characters that have no way of actually knowing the info they’re spitting out which is only glossed over by crap like “My theory is” or “They say that”. Yet by the end, apparently The One trying to resurrect his dead bride (who is shown once at the start of the film, and never mentioned as The One’s bride until 15 minutes from the end) is the central goal of the villain that our heroes are trying the thwart? Heck, before that we had little to no motivation for our heroes to oppose ‘The One’ until after M becomes the villain for 20 minutes before being unceremoniously killed off so The One can take center stage. M would have made sense as a villain because we see him throughout the film making vague mentions of scheming and plotting and how it’s his job to ‘predict the future’ and what not.
Then there’s the whole Watson and Friday thing that is given no resolution, is never really explored beyond using Friday to find out if there’s a soul, and in the moment where that seems like a possibility it’s treated as a huge shocking moment and then immediately forgotten about for the rest of the film. Heck, it can even be interpreted that Watson flat out kills Friday’s regained soul immediately afterward to create a better puppet/tool for fighting M/The One.
In the end, the film and the story feels very much like it wants took inspiration from several early science fiction writers without taking or even understanding why those ideas worked. Like a filmmaker who sees a cool shot and decides to use it over and over regardless of whether it works or not because it was cool but they didn’t understand WHY it was cool. So the film ends up completely falling apart after the half way point as it tries to throw more and more into the film without any understanding of how to use the elements it adds. It could have been something great. There were a lot of amazing ideas to be explored in this film. What it needed to do was just pick one and stick with it.