Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Empire of Corpses
As the turn of the 20th century approaches, the world stands at the brink of a technological revolution - not one prompted by steam or coal, but one instead built on the backs of the newly dead. Having mastered the technology for reviving corpses, manual labor and even more complex tasks have been turned over to a workforce that will never tire, complain, or seek compensation. And in the center of this new world stands medical student John Watson, a man determined not just to harness this new power, but to seek the very essence of the human soul.
The easy, almost foolproof way of testing your appetite for The Empire of Corpses would be to ask: are you a fan of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman (the comics, not the film)? Does that kind of turn of the century steampunk aesthetic entice you? Do you like that sort of old-school adventure serial storytelling, the style that was even cribbed for stuff like Indiana Jones? If so, you'll likely have a fine time with Empire of Corpses, even if the writing here is a bit less substantive than Alan Moore's semi-classic. Go forth, and enjoy your zombies in sharp blazers and bowler hats.
Of course, that recommendation doesn't actually cover the film proper, so I suppose I should expand on that. The Empire of Corpses is the first film in a series of works based on the stories of Project Itoh, soon to be followed by Harmony and Genocidal Organ. The film hypothesizes an alternate industrial revolution, one where Victor Frankenstein's successful reanimation of a human corpse led to a new age dominated by corpse power. But even though human bodies can now be revived, the resulting organisms are essentially just husks, able to be “programmed” to complete tasks, but not truly capable of communication or emotion.
John Watson seeks to go beyond this technology, and discover a way to reignite the soul in a dead body. Accompanied by the reanimated body of his friend Friday (likely a pointed reference to Robinson Crusoe's companion, one of the film's sharper touches), he is tasked by the British government with finding the lost notes of Frankenstein, and perhaps unlocking the final secrets of the human soul. And so Watson sallies forth, journeying from the icy peaks of Afghanistan to the burning streets of San Francisco in his search for enlightenment and peace.
Hopefully that paragraph gives you a clearer sense of the kind of storytelling going on here. The Empire of Corpses stands in a proud tradition of energetic adventure stories, and confidently embraces many of the genre standbys. There are heated fights atop Afghan cliffs, and daring carriage chases twixt zombie hordes. There's a beautiful American woman with a terrible secret, and a rough-and-tumble bruiser with a heart of gold. And all along the way, there's Watson and his cold-eyed ghost of a friend, feverishly attempting to unlock the secrets of the soul.
As far as adventure stories go, Empire of Corpses is a polished and entertaining production. The base mechanics of the world here are a strong point in its favor; the film is full of small details elaborating this alternate, corpse-based energy renaissance, and the ways life has changed across a variety of countries and continents offers a fair amount of worldbuilding intrigue. The action sequences are snappy and frequent, and the base mechanics of how corpses are animated is a compelling mix of steampunk trickery and good old-fashioned body horror. Watson is a likable lead, and his companions perform their roles confidently, even if they're all fairly one-note characters. The film could probably stand to trim some of the fat from its overlong and somewhat ridiculous final act, but evaluated purely as an adventure story, Empire of Corpses is a fine work.
The film's gestures towards the nature of the soul are a bit more half-baked, or just not particularly substantive. It's essentially just the level of human philosophy you'd expect from an action movie, but given how much screentime the film devotes to Watson's questions, it's a little disappointing that there aren't any truly provocative thematic points to be made. The goals of the film's villains end up resolving into classic supervillain nonsense, and though Watson's struggle with both accepting death and acknowledging the complexity of the soul is inherently compelling, that too pretty much ends in a “I guess the soul was inside us all along”-level handwave. This may well be the result of adapting a more nuanced book into a feature film (the Afghanistan climax feels so abridged it's almost nonsensical, for example), but either way, the end result is not too philosophically compelling.
But again, that's not really what most of this film is about. The Empire of Corpses wants to have a rip-roaring adventure-filled time, and at that, it consistently succeeds. The film's aesthetics are well up to the task of supporting its ambitions; there are only a few scenes of standout animation, but the underlying character designs, animation, and color work are all excellent. The colors and backgrounds deserve particular notice - essentially every setting here has a few standout backgrounds, along with its own visual identity created through an appealing and unique color palette. The characters are expressive, and their motion during the bigger action setpieces dynamic and relatively fluid. What little CG characters that exist are masked well, and frankly, you couldn't choose a better target for CG background characters than “shambling zombies” in the first place.
Perhaps my only major visual complaint would be the design of the heroine, Hadaly Lilith. In contrast to the fairly understated but role-appropriate designs of the other characters, Hadaly is given a set of boobs completely out of proportion to her body type. It's a type of indulgent fanservice completely out of step with the rest of the production, and makes it that much harder to take her sequences seriously. I don't even know why the film thought it needed to amp up her fanservice, frankly - it's clear that the rest of this production wants itself to be taken seriously (even if it's a bit more of a lightweight story than it's hoping to be), and so giant anime boobs seem like an obvious visual misstep.
The film's music is also perfectly reasonable, in that standard “urgent orchestral tracks fitting for traditional action scenes” way. And the dub is legitimately impressive. Characters here are all cast with accents appropriate to their various globe-spanning nationalities, meaning the dub actually enhances the cohesion of the material. And beyond just being accent-appropriate, the various major performances are all quite strong in their own right. I'm normally not a fan of dubbed anime, but I actually enjoyed listening to this vocal track.
Overall, The Empire of Corpses feels like the essence of a fine time at the movies. It's a buoyant adventure story full of twists and turns, taking a fundamentally strong worldbuilding premise and draping it over a well-worn genre shell. The ultimate lightness of its philosophical and character-based aspirations can make its two hour runtime a little wearying, but I certainly didn't regret my time with the film. If you're looking for a fun action-adventure story with a unique take on the undead, give it a try.
Overall (dub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : B
+ Tells a propulsive and consistently inventive adventure story, art design and worldbuilding are both compelling.
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