In The Empire of Corpses, the dead walk the earth. In this reality, the famous reanimation research conducted by Viktor Frankenstein was not chased away with torches and pitchforks, but rather accepted and expanded to the point where corpse engineering is an accepted field of study and the dead are revived and repurposed for tasks the living would rather not do, from fighting wars to performing menial labor. However, these dead are not nearly as functional as The One perfect revival that Frankenstein was able to produce. Soon after perfecting this One, he disappeared, and his notes with him, leaving corpse engineers to conduct the same research themselves. Thus far they’ve only been able to manage shuffling, shambling reanimations with limited capacity for thought and no semblance of a soul.
John Watson aims to fix that. Obsessed with restoring a soul to his deceased (and reanimated) friend Friday, he accepts a mission from the British Secret Service to find Frankenstein’s original notes. But in the process, he uncovers many darker secrets…
WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS.
When I first heard about The Empire of Corpses, I squealed in fangirlish glee because here was a whirlwind of things I love – Lavish animation! Steampunk! Creepy sci-fi! Anime! – wrapped up in one beautiful burst of a trailer. I mean look at this:
All this to say, I don’t know how you can take a film about steampunk science zombies and make it boring as hell, but this film did it with panache.
That panache is literally the only reason to watch The Empire of Corpses. The mechanical designs in the film, especially the analytical engines and Frankenstein’s book, are wonderfully complex, and the character designs are mostly fun, too, if sometimes distracting:
Literally everything else is a slow-burning mess.
The film had the basis for an interesting world. I really enjoyed how heavily the science relied on Charles Babbage’s analytical engine and variations to make Necroware – corpse technology – work. The very world of the movie also raises several interesting questions: How did people become so cool with the dead walking around and doing their chores? What about the living people that the dead put out of a job? Do the dead have basic human rights? What happens if the dead regain their souls and become sentient? What is the basis of a soul? Entire worlds of moral, economic, and spiritual questions are raised by the simple, wide presence of the reanimated dead.
Unfortunately the movie answers none of them in a satisfying way.
The first third of the movie, though the slowest part, is the best because it’s the part that presents the questions that it actually plans to address – namely those relating to the soul and how to reclaim it. (This is not a movie that is interested in socioeconomic world-building.)
However, the moment an isolated corpse engineer, Alexei Karamazov, kills one of Watson’s traveling companions to make a point about corpse engineering, the movie begins to tumble downhill fast. The deceased Nikolai Krasotkin is a character we’re supposed to like, but haven’t gotten time to know before his death, which is a problem that recurs in this movie. The death itself is also completely stupid and self-righteous. The reveal? In order to create a sentient, at least sort-of-ensouled corpse, one has to first lull and drug a living person, and then skewer their spinal cord with the Necroware so that they die (er, un-die?). Which kind of seems like the opposite of progress.
Nonetheless, Alexei skewers a still-living Nikolai to prove this point to Watson, then driven mad by this knowledge, skewers his own spinal cord with Necroware. Just before he proceeds to tell Watson where Frankenstein’s notes are, and that he must destroy them, all the while dying (or un-dying) all over the poor guy. Because obviously there was no easier way to relay this kind of information. 😐
The last time we see Alexei and Nikolai, they’re reanimated shells of their former selves, reenacting daily life with a creepy, soulless lack of direction. Because obviously the best way to carry out a madness-induced suicide is to do it with a machine that will bring you sort-of back to life. 😐 😐 😐
These egregious flaws-in-logic-for-the-sake-of-sort-of-horror-drama dominate and ruin the rest of the film. Nearly every time a new discovery is made, it raises a question that tears at the threads of the story’s world. Ooo, Lilith Hadaly has tech that can control corpses! Why was this not revealed like an hour ago? Why is it not in widespread use? Ooo, Thomas Edison created an automaton who is not only a babe but sentient enough that she can be sad about not having emotions? 😐 Screw light bulbs, why isn’t he making more of those? If complex automatons are even a thing that can happen, why bother reanimating smelly, stiff dead people at all? The very end of the movie shows Watson hooking himself up to his Necroware in hopes of reconnecting with Friday, which…ok how is that better than just staying alive and sentient and continuing research? I mean, as a viewer, I was glad for the implication that Watson was finally dead-ish (more on that later) because at least he wouldn’t be able to make any more stupid decisions that endanger the whole human race (like NOT BURNING THE FREAKING BOOK even after TWO DIFFERENT PEOPLE almost succeed at TURNING THE WHOLE WORLD INTO FREAKING ZOMBIES WITH IT OMG.)
My whole review literally could have read as this:
With a heaping side of:
As if I didn’t ask why enough, the film is also peppered with more literary and scientific references than it had any reason to include. Frankenstein and Babbage were necessary to the plot, but Thomas Edison? John Watson? Both of those characters could have had different names without it having any effect on the story – except for an after-credits sequence, wherein John Watson (still somehow alive) is revealed to have befriended who else but Sherlock Holmes, and Lilith Hadaly is now going by the name of Irene Adler. This does give the movie the novelty of presenting the one Watson who is more insane than Holmes, but again:
That’s not even the end of it. The climax of the movie is the biggest mess, coming down to a corpse-control transmitter that can apparently transmit to the whole world at once, The One being interested in Frankenstein’s book because Bride of Frankenstein’s soul or something or other, both The One and a mysterious eyepatch dude agreeing that human emotions/souls cause all kind of problems and wouldn’t we all just be better off as lifeless zombie people anyway, and green soul magic wherein Friday regains a soul but it’s Frankenstein’s? Maybe? And then loses it? And then gains one again? And loses it, too? I didn’t even care by that point. The only thing I was really paying attention to was the admittedly badass organ that The One played while doing his soul science BS.
I’m in the minority with this review, most of the ones I read before watching being glowing reviews. To which I say: What secret, hidden version of the movie did you guys watch, and how do I get my hands on it?
The Empire of Corpses had the potential to be an excellent piece of steampunk horror sci-fi, but as is, it’s an example of every way not to be one.