Written by Aleksandr Karpov and Oleg Stepchenko
Directed by Oleg Stepchenko
Russia, Ukraine, Czech Republic, 2014
Though we may not like to admit it, some movies simply have the deck stacked against them. Case in point, Forbidden Empire. Forbidden Empire is, in fact, a dubbed and re-cut version of Viy, a 2014 Russian fantasy-horror film with a very interesting pedigree. The film is based off a short story by Nikolai Gogol, one of the more towering figures of classic Russian literature, and was previously adapted into a film of the same name in 1967. The previous version of Viy is regarded as something of an unsung classic, an immensely watchable gem rife creative and memorable effects sequences. The new film, however, eschews most of the practical effects wizardry that made the original what it is in favor of CGI effects. So, in summary, it’s a re-cut, dubbed version of a remake of a classic film that replaces practical effects with computer generated ones. Now you see why Forbidden Empire, from the first frame, is already in a losing battle for the affection of viewers who are in the know about what they’re actually watching.
The film expands considerably on the plot of the original film and story, so much so that around 95% of what we see is entirely new material, with the original tale of a priest holding vigil over the body of a witch for three terrifying nights is almost buried in the new story concocted for the film. Cartographer Jonathan Greene (Jason Flemyng), after running for the hills from his pregnant wife (Anna Churina) and imposing father-in-law (Charles Dance), happens upon a small Ukrainian village supposedly beset by witches, monsters, and the demon Viy. After being hired by the village leader to chart the land around an abandoned church where the body of a witch still lies, Greene slowly uncovers the dark secrets behind the events plaguing the village.
A quick comparison between Forbidden Empire and Viy confirms that some significant alterations have been made to the film, with scenes being moved around and around twenty minutes have been shaved off the run time. This goes a long way in explaining one of Forbidden Kingdom’s main shortcomings: a breakneck pace that causes scenes and major events whiz by fast enough that losing track of the plot is almost guaranteed. Forbidden Empire breathlessly sprints through its narrative, daring the audience to keep up, and many scenes feel as though many shots are either truncated or removed entirely. While the voice actors and writers who concocted the dub are clearly trying, the English translation does little to help in this, and any viewers able to keep track of Forbidden Empire should be commended.
The one trump card that Forbidden Empire does have tucked away is the visual design of the film. The sets and locales are beautifully designed, and the various monsters that occasionally pop up to menace Flemyng all look terrific and imaginative. Obiviously the CGI isn’t up to Hollywood standards, this being a Russian project with a much lower budget than the Hollywood blockbusters its trying to emulate, but what the visuals lack in fidelity they more than make up for in creativity. This is, perhaps, the one thing Forbidden Empire/Viy has in common with its 1967 predecessor. If anything is distracting about the visuals, it’s the constant pandering to the film’s original 3D format. Knowing that this was originally a 3D film goes a long way towards explaining all the objects and characters being thrust at the screen in virtually every action sequence. The visuals are still fun, though, and often feel reminiscent of something Guillermo del Toro would cook up. The downside, however, is that these scenes feel few and far between at times, and Forbidden Empire seems far more interested in the mystery angle than scenes of demons and monsters.
Forbidden Empire is one of those rare films where the less one knows about it going in, the better. Fans of the original Viy will probably cringe at the non-practical effects and vastly altered plot that trades a simple, spooky little narrative for a much larger, more ambitious storyline that no one ever really asked for out of a Viy adaptation. If the film was at least able to handle this new narrative a bit better that would be one thing, but the breathless pace makes the new storyline difficult to follow. Perhaps the original Russian cut fares better in this department, and perhaps the subtitled version helps as well, on the subject.
The people for whom Forbidden Empire will probably work best for, in the long run, are those with no knowledge of its background, who just ask for an odd, creatively designed little fantasy-horror film and get exactly that.