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New Release Review - THE EMPIRE OF CORPSES

John Watson embarks on a mission to recover the notes of Victor Frankenstein.





Review by Rúairí Conneely (@rmconneely)

Directed by: Ryotaro Makihara

Starring: Kana Hanazawa, Yoshimasa Hosoya, Taiten Kusunoki



While the movie will strike some as clichéd and melodramatic, people who aren't espeiclally au fait with steampunk will probably be engaged. If you're a fan of violent Young Adult fiction like The Hunger Games, or lacking something to tide you over between seasons of Attack On TitanThe Empire of Corpses might be what you're looking for.



The first five minutes of The Empire of Corpses outlines a fictional world that might inspire a sarcastic or slightly  jaded viewer to think, "Oh man, that doesn't sound like a recipe for disaster AT ALL!" The premise centres around the industrialization of Victor Frankenstein's method for reanimating corpses. Anyone familiar with the Steampunk genre will see a lot of boxes being ticked to set the scene. The pioneering engineer/mathematician Charles Babbage is name-checked along with the presence of his analytic engines – early clockwork computers. Rather than just allusively namedropping, The Empire of Corpses populates its action with famous literary characters. The lead is John Watson of the Sherlock Holmes canon, here presented as a driven and solitary engineer of the dead. He is apprehended by M of MI6 immediately after illegally reanimating his diseased friend, Friday, and tasked with an international mission to recover the notes of Victor Frankenstein from one of the Brothers Karamazov. Friday's designation is 'Noble Savage 007', and so it goes.


Steampunk as a genre seems concerned with a re-weirding of the familiar images of the nineteenth century, its competing imperial projects and the rapidly developing technologies which came to structure the modern world. The Victorian-era systems of class and political economy are presented as underpinned by a science fictional or supernatural element, to highlight the questionable assumptions they embody. The horror element of The Empire of Corpses literally rises out of this aspect of the genre, showing us undead gurkas and British soldiers re-murdering each other on the battle field. Grandiose railway stations are crowded by milling legions of coolies and servants, their heads lolling like, well... zombies. We're invited to consider a modern edifice for the world being built on the exploitation of the dead: the theme of technological advance without ethical foresight drives the first half or so of The Empire of the Corpses. The weaponisation of the dead is fun to behold and discomforting to contemplate, and the filmmakers pursue the idea to gothic and macabre extremes.


There is some strong, detailed design work on display but the direction is a little too televisual and confining at times, particularly in some of the action sequences. There's a great character intro moment where someone comes bounding into the frame to delivered a huge haymaker of a punch, before dragging Watson and his reanimated assistant Friday out of harm's way, but that dynamic entry is followed by a visually unexciting chase. The viewer is sometimes somewhere in the middle distance or right up close to the action, so the scale and pace of events isn't always effectively communicated. There are some pretty wild set pieces though, and inventive variations of the monsters.


The story is epic in scope but proceeds a little too matter-of-factly sometimes, through exposition and implausibly precise exchanges of dialogue. This may well be due to the fact that the novel on which the film is based is very dense with ideas and imaginings which have to be shoehorned into the runtime of a feature, to please the fans and dazzle newcomers. In fairness, the filmmakers do a commendable job of indicating that there is a whole world to discover here. The plot ticks over swiftly and there's a fun element of Boy's Own Adventure blended into what is by intention a work of political science fantasy. While the movie will strike some as clichéd and melodramatic, people who aren't espeiclally au fait with steampunk will probably be engaged. If you're a fan of violent Young Adult fiction like The Hunger Games, or lacking something to tide you over between seasons of Attack On Titan, The Empire of Corpses might be what you're looking for.
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