“The Empire of Corpses” had a limited theatrical run across the country in select theaters last week.
In London, 1878, John Watson illegally reanimates corpses using technology known as Technowear. He is caught by the British Empire and forced to work for the government as a corpse engineer. In this alternate universe, reanimated corpses are militarized, used as servants, and even outnumber the living. Watson is sent to retrieve Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s notes. Frankenstein was the one man who was able to bring a corpse back to life with a soul intact. Watson has recently reanimated his best friend and assistant named Friday, whom he intends to use Victor’s notes in an effort to retrieve Friday’s soul. Unfortunately for Watson and the British Empire, they aren’t the only ones racing after Victor’s research.
From the animation studio behind “Attack on Titan,” “The Empire of Corpses” is a psychological science fiction adventure anime film directed by Ryoutarou Makihara (key animator of “Fullmetal Alchemist the Movie: Conquerer of Shamballa”). Based on the novel of the same name by Japanese science fiction writer Project Itoh, “The Empire of Corpses” puts a refreshing take on the living dead.
The film features beautiful animation that is absolutely breathtaking. “The Empire of Corpses” effortlessly blends computer generated and traditional animation. The animation in the film flows naturally yet catches your eye with vivid colors, incredibly fluid movements, and fictional technology that would be impressive in this century let alone the 19th. Since it’s a PG-13 film, it isn’t overly bloody or gory but there are a few memorable action sequences. The whole “corpse bomb” concept pays off quite well, Hadaly using a flamethrower while riding in a carriage that is doing one of the most impressive donuts you’ve ever seen is also fantastic, and the samurai sequence tops off that action packed sundae with a rather remarkable cherry.
Most of the characters have a layer of intrigue buried beneath this veil of ambiguity. Hadaly is the mysterious female character with an unclear motive that always seems to show up when things go south, Burnaby pulls double duty as the film’s comedic relief and the muscle, Nikolai obviously has ulterior motives since he’s willing to betray his own people for the purpose of getting Victor’s notes to the British, and Friday is probably the most trusted zombie ever. How many living corpses would you rely on to take handwritten notes and actively shoot a handgun near your most vulnerable and fleshy areas?
Storytelling stands on two wobbly metaphorical legs in “The Empire of Corpses.” The first three quarters of the film are extremely scientific with characters mostly delivering long chunks of dialogue involving massive amounts of information that may or may not be detrimental to the storyline. Once you get a feel for the film’s overly systematic approach to the zombie genre, it turns everything upside down in the last twenty minutes or so by putting a magical spin on the reasoning behind everything. Suddenly characters are body swapping, green crystals are forming in the air in mass numbers, and peculiar green clouds start rising to the sky from every corpse’s mouth.
Using a character named John Watson in the late 1800s is going to get you thinking about a certain renowned detective from the same time period, which makes “The Empire of Corpses” all the more baffling. There is literally no mention of the John Watson you expect during the events of the film, but it feels more than a little forced when that after credits sequence comes and attempts to connect Watson to mystery solving. On the surface, it’s an amusing connection but once you allow your brain to process the idea it just has you questioning the purpose of it all.
“The Empire of Corpses” is worth seeing for its stunning animation and unique twist on zombies, but its muddled story, awkward finale, and overuse of excessive scientific jargon makes the two hour anime film feel like a bittersweet steampunk symphony.