Forbidden Empire Movie Review
Written by Angry Scholar
Released by Entertainment One
Directed by Aleksandr Karpov and Oleg Stepchenko
Written by Oleg Stepchenko
2014, 127 minutes, Not Rated
VOD released on May 22nd, 2015 | DVD released on June 30th, 2015
Jason Flemyng as Dzhonatan Grin
Andrey Smolyakov as Otets Paisiy
Aleksey Chadov as Petrus
Agnia Ditkovskite as Nastusya
Words. Reviews start with words, usually. I'm having trouble thinking of any just at the moment. Um. Hello! Uh.
Guys, okay this movie is ridiculous. Let's start there.
Forbidden Empire is the story of an Englishman named Jonathan ("Dzhonatan" in the credits) who dreams of accurately mapping the political boundaries of the world. We first meet Jonathan when he's chased out of his lover's bed by her enraged father. With this inauspicious beginning, Jonathan sets off on his cartographic adventure in a horse-drawn, self-steering carriage, or something.
Meanwhile in Russia...
There's a village that has a demon problem. A pair of young girls are attacked by a monster, one of them dies and the other goes mad. The dead girl is laid out in the church by her grieving father, and—like— and—
I just— Huh. This is where it gets nuts. This movie is NUTS.
So the girl's spirit is now evil, and she attacks a priest who is sent to the church to pray over her, and the church is marked as an evil place and nobody will go there anymore. Of course Jonathan's wanderings take him to the village, where he gets wrapped up in the drama with the dead girl and the demons and whatnot. He's enlisted by Sotnik, the dead girl's father and village headman, to make a map of the village for reasons undefined. Sotnik instructs Jonathan to go to the old church, where he'll have a good vantage from which to do his mapmaking magic. In so doing, Jonathan inevitably learns the truth of what's going on in the village and ultimately sets all to right.
The thing is, it's virtually impossible to follow the narrative thread of this beast. I'm not sure if something's lost in translation—much of the dialogue is Russian, badly dubbed in English—or if cinematic conventions are different in that country, or some combination of these and other factors, but I found it very difficult to keep up. Not that the plot is complex; it's just unwound in fits and starts, occasionally jumping back and forth in time and place and really doesn't make sense at all. Jonathan sends cryptic messages to his beloved and their new baby back in England via carrier pigeon, and the scene flips back to her and her smarmy father periodically as they read his notes. I don't know the intended purpose of these scenes, but they only serve to further confuse an already needlessly convoluted, erratic story. The film also suffers from trying to do far too many things at once and not managing to do any of them well. It has elements of horror, action/adventure in the vein of Pirates of the Caribbean, and slapstick comedy (er, also in the vein of Pirates), but doesn't do any of these genres well enough to justify their inclusion (also, again, just like Pirates). It is, in short, a mess.
In one scene Jonathan is drinking with a bunch of men from the village when they all turn into hideous Evil Dead-style demons, rendered in pretty awful CG. He flees from them and comes face to face with Viy, the legendary, I guess, boss demon? Then he wakes up, and everything's back to normal, so maybe it was all a drunken dream, OR WAS IT. This scene seemed not to serve any purpose at all, aside from adding a thin layer of ambiguity to an already messy plot.
The film is full of things like this, moments that just feel kind of unnecessary at best, totally bewildering at worst. It may be, again, that some of this is cultural, that there are meanings which are simply not coming through to me as a Western viewer. And none of this is helped by the poor English dub, which is often distracting. (I don't know why filmmakers assume that Western viewers can't handle subtitles. Wait, yes I do. I know why. Because reading.) In the end, though, all of this prevented me from really caring about what was happening or even finding it particularly interesting.
I wanted very much to like Forbidden Empire, precisely because it seemed to combine so many disparate elements in a lighthearted, humorous way. Unfortunately, it just doesn't come together. Evidently it's based on Viy, a short story by Nikolai Gogol, which had an earlier film adaptation in 1967. The film did serve to pique my interest in the original text and that earlier movie, and approached in the right spirit there is some fun to be had here. (Go in expecting a more nonsensical, cheesier Army of Darkness and you may actually enjoy yourself.) It also has some cool visuals and scenery. Sadly, there's just not much else to recommend it.