Watson, a student doctor, becomes obsessed with the idea of bringing back a human soul after his friend dies. Using his friend’s corpse, he begins experimentation using the work of Victor Frankenstein as a guide. When he is caught, he is sent on a mission to retrieve Frankenstein’s notes and then a whole bunch of other stuff happens.
I don’t watch anime movies very often but every now and then one comes out that I think I’d really appreciate watching. The Empire of Corpses caught my attention early on being set in the 19th Century and focussing on the idea of Frankenstein’s legacy having become a reality. Building the British Empire literally through the use of an army of corpses and corpse labourers is a fascinating idea and thinking about how that would change the world, and the sheer number of arguments it would cause in terms of morality, is something that I thought I’d really like to explore. Unfortunately, this movie is interested in introducing those ideas but it isn’t interested in dealing with that reality. While the first half an hour or so sets up what looks like it will be an interesting moralistic tale about the subjective rights of the deceased and empire building, those ideas quickly get swept aside and make way for a convoluted and not entirely realised narrative that exclusively follows Watson’s obsession with death and scientific pursuits.
Points therefore must be given to Watson’s characterisation. He really does follow the mould laid out in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein perfectly. Pursuit of answers and science at the expense of anything and then the horrible realisation of what his pursuit has wrought but still an attempt to justify the actions and to bring some good from what is in this case a steaming pile of corpses. If the movie was seeking only to bring the tale of Frankenstein to a new era through a story that could almost be seen as a very late entry sequel it may have even been successful as Watson’s links to Frankenstein are incredibly clear and his relationship with Friday, the corpse he has brought to life, is definitely the high light of this film.
But why stop at just referencing Frankenstein? Why not reference any and every classic work and character from the era, even when it makes zero sense to do so? Also, why restrict the story to just one location and setting when we can trot around the entire globe? Let’s deal with a former American President visiting India, the Russians attacking various groups through the use of exploding corpses, a trek through Afghanistan, skip on over to Japan where we can get some cliché culture before exploring a lab, and then we’ll just jump across to America before getting back to the Tower of London. The whole movie is so incredibly cluttered with unrealised ideas and most of them end up being fairly pointless.
The entire Russian influence is one of the most pointless aspects of the story. There are Russians attacking our main characters, but they meet with a Russian who is going to guide them to where the notes might be in Afghanistan. We’ll meet another Russian scientist who will point out the horror of the research (and in so doing will turn his actual living friend into a living corpse before having the corpse do the same to him) and then somehow this becomes the point that everyone will remind Watson about later on that they died for something. None of this ends up feeding in to the overall narrative where we end up with The One (Victor’s original creation that could talk), using Frankenstein’s notes to try to create a soul in an android and trying to transfer his own mind into the mind of Friday because apparently Friday’s corpse has been well taken care of. In case you got lost there, don’t worry, it doesn’t actually make any sense while watching it either.
And this brings me to one of the most maddening points of the entire movie. The final half an hour. Let’s just ignore the fact that they were on a quest to retrieve the notes, which turned into destroy the notes, which turned into Watson’s obsession with copying the notes before destroying the notes, and then they had to retrieve the notes when they got stolen again. Let’s just ignore that. It isn’t relevant. And we’ll ignore that midway through the story we suddenly had characters who could influence corpses by sound, either voice or stamping their foot. Why and how this works is clearly unimportant to anyone writing the story so we’ll just let it go. I’ll even ignore the fact that somehow our main group of two guys, an automaton girl and a shuffling corpse managed to get through a heavily armed military installation in order to get to the final confrontation even if that doesn’t end particularly well for the corpse and the girl as they end up at the centre of the whole thing.
What I won’t ignore is that until this final part there was an attempt to at least make corpse technology look like a technology. Out of place in the time period technology, but technology. This final sequence forgets all of that and instead we suddenly have green lights floating about and random blue crystals growing over things as organ music plays. It is all visually spectacular and all completely fantastical gobbledygook with no grounding in anything that could be considered reality even within the reality constructed by this movie. It is like they just ripped up their own rule book and went for broke. Including, after one of the character cuts the power, smashing some keys on an organ manages to repower up the device momentarily. I’m really willing to suspend disbelief during a film, particularly one about reanimating corpses in the 19th Century, but there is suspension of disbelief and then there is swallowing bull and this movie crosses the line far too much in the final sequence.
Not to mention, even after it is all done and we get an aftermath, the story only deals with Watson and Friday. We do not get to see how the world has changed after the night the corpses that were relied upon as labourers went crazy and the sheer mass murder of civilians. You would think that there should be some significant social reform going on but why bother letting the audience know about any of that. It’s clearly just background noise.
Anyway, I bought this film on sale and I’m glad of that because full price would have been asking too much. I’m also glad I watched it with someone because the two hours would have felt really long if I didn’t have someone to help me make fun of the sillier moments in the narrative. Not to mention it was nice to know it wasn’t just me losing track of what was going on at the end. It just does not make sense.
So do I recommend this?
That’s tough because I know I’ll probably rewatch this next year at some point. It is bad, terrible in fact in terms of story, but there’s enough ideas and the like here that I wouldn’t mind another watch. It also looks really good with some great atmosphere. Not to mention, its a zombie anime and I like bad horror stories. So, no, I probably wouldn’t recommend it but it isn’t a completely unwatchable, fling the disc out the window kind of movie. That’s not exactly high praise but its the best I can manage for this one at the moment.
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