This review was requested by Matthew McPherson.
Congratulations on your big day!
We’ve all heard the story of Victor Frankenstein and his creation, which often gets mistaken for him. Some versions tell of his monster dancing to Puttin’ on the Ritz, some versions tell of his monster battling an ancient order of gargoyles, and some versions tell of his monster’s daughter attending high school with other Halloween Bratz rejects. But what no version of this classic story has ever told you is that the old doctor was only the first person to successfully reanimate a corpse. His creation could move on it’s own, it could speak, it could make decisions for itself, it could promote strawberry cereal… But aside from the doctor, nobody could replicate this feat. By the 1800s, technological necromancy was so popular that the soulless, silent husks of the departed had been relegated to the roles of menial workers, performing simple tasks for their fleshy masters, just like at the end of Shaun of the Dead. It was seen as impossible to imbue a reanimated corpse(they’re VERY specific about avoiding the zed word) with a soul, thus the Doctor and his creation became the stuff of legends.
Much like Nikola Tesla, Dr. Frankenstein never released his revolutionary methods to the public, and he and his creation have unfortunately disappeared into time. While it’s entirely possible that the old doctor is living it up in Storybrook and getting freaky with Snow White, and that his monster, labelled by history as “The One” is off somewhere battling other monsters on the side of a bunch of obnoxious children, history has marched on, with all soul reanimation research becoming illegal in Great Britain. Cut to relatively present times, where a young Dr. John Watson has undertaken the not-so-elementary task of figuring out the old Doctor’s work. With a freshly reanimated corpse working as his close assistant, he picks up a bunch of… People… Who join his journey because of… Reasons… As they all push forward on an Unexpected journey to find Doctor Frankenstein’s notes and bring a real soul into the body of his deceased… Friend? I think? And in order to get it, he’ll brave any number of savage, flesh eating totally-not-zombie hordes, even as they spontaneously combust in his face. But sooner rather than later, he’ll have to ask himself… Who are the true monsters?
I’ve said before that Production IG is one of the most solid you’ll find, as they tend to produce some of the best looking anime of their time(and a few bombs, but it’s still a really impressive ratio). Empire of Corpses unfortunately wasn’t made by Production IG, at least not on paper. It was produced by Wit Studio, which is a smaller studio founded by producers from IG, so it’s basically the Touchstone to IG’s Disney. This smaller studio was actually founded very recently, as it’s first known work was released in 2013, and that was of course the original Attack on Titan. Despite it’s overblown reputation, Titan wasn’t the best looking anime, as used a handful of budget saving tricks to maximize it’s visual quality, but they were all somewhat noticeable and distracting, and the thick outlines didn’t help either. Empire of corpses is a decent improvement over this method, because while there wasn’t a huge increase in budget between the two shows, Empire is a lot better at hiding it’s flaws and shortcuts.
One thing I noticed about this film in terms of quality control is how a good chunk of the budget was spent on action scenes, most of which take place in bright daylight, and they paved the way for this by spending a lot of the film’s run time in the dark, using heavy shadows and CG fog effects to hide what would have looked a lot cheaper upon closer and more well-lit inspection. Over-all, the animation looks solid enough to be above complaint. People move as much as they need to, and they never really freeze in the background. The animation is pretty good, but the artwork is nothing short of exquisite. The character designs are a little on the generic side, and that goes for both the living AND the undead, but they’re still polished and consistently on-model enough. The lighting and shading are meticulously realistic, the coloring in the darker and more intense scenes is satisfyingly eerie, and the backgrounds are beautifully designed and atmospheric, and trust me, there are a ton of backgrounds in this movie.
There’s a lot of travel between different countries in this film, including what I believe were many different setting across America, England, India, Russia and Japan, and the level of detail is mind numbing all across the board. Far off shots reveal entire towns, lit by fire and the earliest gasps of technology against the night sky, and the chaos of thousands of people dealing with the onslaught of their once docile reanimated servants is captured beautifully in all it’s carnage. The intricacies get even more elaborate as we explore a number of indoor locations, such as a Japanese chemical company and the Tower of London, where 2D and 3D animation are flawlessly combined to show off technological environments that are guaranteed to ignite the fancies of any steampunk fan who happens to be watching. There’s also simpler settings, like the cozy interior of the USS Richmond, any number of towns the cast has to pass through, and several real life geographical locations. All in all, this film did a hell of a job in the visual department.
The English dub is also quite commendable, with the adaptive script from John Burgmeier of course being respectful to the source material, although whether or not that’s a good thing is up to you. The dialogue for this movie is overloaded with exposition and long winded explanations, and while that kind of thing is hard to make up for through adaptation, the actors still manage to rise above the material they’ve been given. Jason Leibricht is the voice you’ll hear the most, and while the chunks of dialogue he gets can occasionally be tiresome, he doesn’t sound like he’s just reading it from a cue card, either. It sounds like he’s in character, talking to us in his natural voice, and while that doesn’t entirely make up for the material, it’s easily the best anybody could have done with it. This is especially impressive from him because, in the Japanese, the narrator and John Watson were played by different people, but he takes all of it on himself. And thankfully, when the explanations are set aside, he does a fantastic job emoting in his more story-driven scenes.
But speaking of emoting, you really have to give it up for Todd Haberkorn, who plays the mostly mute character Friday, and in order to perform his wordless grunts and attempted vocalizations, he had to call upon a level of voice control that I haven’t heard out of anybody other than Brittany Karbowski, who I’d previously dubbed as the queen of in-character suffering. He brings the necessary elements of pain and tragedy to the character, and even when he does get to speak, he winds up doing so on two different occasions, using two equally perfect accents… British and Russian. J Michael Tatum is a joy to listen to with his gruff, charming cockney accent, sounding like a guy you just wanna go get a beer with. Mike McFarland and Micah Solusod don’t get a lot of screen time, but they still put forth admirable Russian accents, and Morgan Garrett plays the British femme fatale Hadalay like she was born to be a mysterious Bond girl. Greg Dulcie sounds convincing as former president Ulysses S Grant, and R Bruce Elliot plays a cool yet incredibly intimidating take on Frankenstein’s classic monster. Solid English dub all around, can’t recommend it enough.
Now, when I hear the name Empire of Corpses, and then someone tells me that it’s a story loosely connected to the Frankenstein mythos, the first image that pops into my head is a bit more of a metaphorical take on that title than we actually get. I picture in my head that moment from Berserk when Griffith is just realizing how many people have died for him to get as far as he has, how many more he’ll have to kill to get there, and just how many deaths will have been wasted if he turns back and gives up. The idea of pairing that image with a follower of Dr. Frankenstein in a world where reanimated corpses are a societal norm opens up a slew of tantalizing possibilities, quite a few of which had me eager to sit down and see if all of this movie’s poor reviews were really indicative of it’s potential. I didn’t get quite what I was expecting from it, but that also doesn’t mean there wasn’t some potential in what I DID get. Instead of a dark character study on an insane genius losing his grip on reality, we get a mostly sane-minded scientist getting scooped up on a Hobbit-style journey alongside other individuals with their own relationships to reanimation science and their opinions on how to use it.
Is that a bad scenario? No, not at all. The exploration of an idea through the different perspectives of a number of unique, diverse characters can often result in some really enjoyable think pieces, especially if there’s action and in-fighting to challenge them and a dark mystery going on below the surface to increase the stakes of the story. So why is it that out of four entire attempts to watch this film all the way through, I wound up falling asleep every single time? Sometimes multiple times? Well, two of the movie’s huge problems are evident right at the beginning. Not even ten minutes into the film, we’ve already been given two mutually exclusive expository monologues from the main character, one being about his work and the other being about the world the story is taking place in, how Dr. Frankenstein’s work has affected the world as it is, and especially the way it’s affected the warfare of the times. Exposition in a movie can be tiresome at the best of times, with the obligatory Star Wars text scroll being on the high end, but this just keeps going on and on.
And the other problem may not be as prevalent, but it’s far more damaging to the story… We see Watson reanimate Friday, his new corpse servant, but we’re not given any ideas as to who Friday was, what relationship he had to Watson, OR why we’re supposed to care about him being given a soul. We find out around the hour mark that he’s Watson’s former partner and he volunteered to be resurrected upon his death, but at no point are we given any reason to want him to become whole again, which makes all of the trouble they go through to achieve this end feel kind of meaningless. We’re given plenty of reasons to want Ed Elric to get his brother’s soul back, because we knew Alphonse as a child, and we were all given ample time and reason to fall in love with him. On the contrary, you take a movie like Logan, where Professor X is elderly and suffering from dementia, turning his mind into a deadly weapon of mass destruction, and every tragedy that Wolverine’s caring for him causes… Including the slaughter of an entire family that he insisted on visiting… Just winds up feeling like the consequences of pursuing a really bad idea, even though it’s not presented as such.
It’s hard to not feel that way when John Watson’s dedication to bringing life back to Friday winds up causing untold death and destruction, including a scene where Friday literally loses control and murders a random young woman in the street, and you don’t know enough about their previous relationship to address extremely potent questions like whether or not this quest was worth pursuing in the first place, and whether or not just letting the poor zombie die and ending said quest in it’s tracks would be for the better. I might have been able to get behind his resurrection and Watson’s steadfast resolve if the two of them were best friends, going all the way back to childhood with a dependence on one another. Hell, if they were previously lovers, that would make it even more compelling. But if we as the audience aren’t given a reason to care, why the hell should we WANT to see Friday resurrected with all of this destruction lying in his wake? All of the bad things that happen in the film are unequivocally Watson’s fault, so we’d better be getting a satisfying resolution out of it.
But all of that isn’t the reason I kept falling asleep. See, this movie’s overall story just isn’t engaging. At all. I know I said that the people in charge of animating and dubbing were on the top of their game, but between the writer and the director, somebody made a bunch of embarrassingly amateurish mistakes, and I’m not just talking about forgetting to mark large passages of time, like a year long time skip towards the middle of the film… although that did happen. The structure is sloppy from beginning to end, to the point that I honestly wasn’t surprised that it was based on a novel, because I normally only see execution this bad when people are trying to cram entire books into a 2 hour format. I haven’t read the original novel, nor do I intend to, but the movie feels like someone set out to hit all the important plot points of the story, and in doing so, found they had to sacrifice everything that wasn’t necessary to the outline. This would explain why the pacing was so bad, with the story jumping from scene to scene at a breakneck speed, with little attempt to ease the viewer through each major scene conversion.
It also probably explains why there is literally… Yes, I mean literally… No character development throughout the entire film. Oh, you learn things about the characters you didn’t know before, and you get to see them react to different events, but you never see anybody develop. I don’t mind if one or two characters are the same at the end as they were in the beginning, especially when there’s an in-universe explanation like in Steins;Gate, but everybody? They relegate months worth of traveling together and getting to know each other and learning about each other into a brief montage, then they expect you to care when two characters suddenly get killed off. Oh no, the guy who looks like that and had that voice got killed both by and alongside the guy who just showed up a couple of minutes ago to dump exposition on us, how will we ever replace them? Oh, I know, we’ll replace them with a brand new random character who’ll stick with us a little while and then ALSO disappear from the film completely!
There’s groundwork for a decent message about the importance of equality, as the reanimated corpses are being used as slaves and servants for the more fortunate, and I figured this was intentional from the fact that the main cast was British and a lot of the corpses were Indian, but several events and revelations in the third act that I don’t want to get into kind of squashed that potential for depth into the dirt. Oh, but speaking of the third act, here’s something interesting about the movie’s climax… It’s a rip-off of two separate anime combined into one… Fullmetal Alchemist, and Evangelion! Oh yeah, it starts out as a rip-off of the big Philosopher’s Stone reveal, and it swerves headfirst right into a rip-off of the human Instrumentality project! That’s what all of this was leading to! That’s what all of this emotionally bankrupt action and dialogue that was at least seventy-five percent full of exposition was leading to. Also, and I hate to bring this up so late in the review, but if the walking dead in this universe are created through science, why does their bite create more of them? Consistency, people.
Empire of corpses is available from Funimation. While the original novel is not available stateside… Or at least, I can’t find it… His other novels, including Harmony, Genocidal Organ and a novelization of Meta Gear solid: Guns of the Patriots, are available from Viz Media, are. The movie versions of Harmony and Genocidal Organ are also available on DVD from Funimation.
Okay, I know I went off on this movie for being badly written and devoid of any emotional resonance, but honestly, I still kind of recommend checking it out. It’s not every day you get to see zombies that have been turned into suicidal biological bombs, there’s quite a few interesting ideas on display, and when the director really wanted to buckle down and get you invested in a scene, it can at least be entertaining, if only in those few scenes. It’s also worth watching for the outstanding visual quality and the top notch English dub, but don’t misunderstand me, this movie just isn’t very good, and it’s attempts to weave a connected history through Thomas Edison, Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Frankenstein, President Grant and even the Bond films feels more like a poorly planned experiment than an expanded universe. It’s hard for me to fully get behind a movie that I can’t for the life of me stay awake through, but it does have some merits. You may need an energy drink to get through it, but personally, I don’t regret seeing it. I give Empire of corpses a 4/10.