Eighteenth century cartographer Jonathan Green (Jason Flemyng) flees the estate of irate aristocrat Lord Dudley (Charles Dance) after the latter catches him in bed with his daughter (Anna Churina) and sets sail from England on a scientific voyage through Eastern Europe. A series of unfortunate mishaps strand the mapmaker's steam-powered carriage in a strange, isolated and dangerous village deep in the impenetrable woods of the Ukraine. Believing they face a demon plague orchestrated by an ancient monster known as Vij, the villagers have built a moat that separates them from the rest of the world. However, imposing yet fair-minded chief Dorosh (Igor Jijikine) believes a rational man of science like Jonathan can find out whether a demon really did slay his beloved daughter. Yet Jonathan's investigation is impeded by village priest Yavtukh (Aleksandr Karpov) who uses fear and religion to whip the villagers into a witch-hunt.
In the decade since Timur Bekmambetov's seminal Night Watch (2004) the Russian film industry has produced a steady stream of grandiose, effects-laden blockbusters on a scale comparable with Hollywood. Wolfhound (2006), Inhabited Island (2008) and Black Lightning (2009) are just a few examples. In a way Forbidden Empire, known in Russia as Viy 3D and released on DVD in the UK as Forbidden Kingdom (a title likely to be confused with the 2008 Disney kung fu fantasy with Jet Li and Jackie Chan), brings things full circle since it is based on the same Nikolai Gogol ghost story that inspired Vij (1967), the pioneering fantasy-horror co-directed by Alexander Ptushko, the father of Russian special effects. That same story also inspired Mario Bava's classic Black Sunday (1960) and, by proxy, every Euro-horror opus that followed.
Taking its cue from Sleepy Hollow (1999) by way of Pan's Labyrinth (2006), Forbidden Empire fuses the sumptuous, if self-conscious Gothic artifice of Tim Burton and Guillermo Del Toro with the sprightly steampunk aesthetic Terry Gilliam employed in The Brothers Grimm (2005). On a visual level the film is routinely stunning, reaching a crescendo with a showstopping effects sequence that evokes The Company of Wolves (1984) as a band of burly Cossacks sat round a dining table morph into freakish monstrosities while Jonathan cowers inside a chalk circle. Yet it barely holds together as a narrative. Oleg Stepchenko embeds Gogol's simple but effective story of a monk who spends a night guarding a witch's corpse as but one episode in an unnecessarily elaborate tapestry. The sprawling plot is so preoccupied with a myriad of tangents and tangled conspiracies it loses sight of its central thrust. Compounding matters, several male characters sport the exact same mustache and haircut making it impossible to tell them apart. What is more Stepchenko's breakneck editing style never allows the viewer an opportunity to register what just happened. Amidst an eye-popping onslaught of CGI horrors and wonders, the film keeps returning to Jonathan's estranged lover now pregnant with his child and intertwines not one but two star-crossed love stories, one concerning affable village boy Petrus (Night Watch's Aleksey Chadov) and persecuted mute girl Nastusya (Agnia Ditkovskite), the other between the enigmatic monk and misunderstood witch of Gogol's tale. Neither of which register any emotional impact, since we barely get to know either couple, nor make much sense.
As with Tim Burton's film the plot here touches upon the clash between reason and superstition but has a hard time reconciling the two. On the one hand the script, co-written by Stepchenko and Aleksandr Karpov, decries Christianity as a means of manipulating the weak-willed and gullible yet proves no more persuasive on selling us the merits of the scientific rationale of Jonathan Green, a character supposedly inspired by French traveller and cartographer Guillaume Le Vasseur de Beauplan, author of the journal "From Transylvania to Muscovy." In fact the finale ultimately invokes divine retribution to save the heroes and punish evil. To the filmmaker's credit the plot does attempt to reconcile science with spirituality through the conduit of humanism. Yet their admirable goal falters given the film is riddled with inconsistencies on a thematic and theological level. In addition the curious choice to portray the supposedly backward villagers as scientifically adept and far more formidable than Jonathan not only calls into question why they would be subjugated by crazed priest Yavtukh in the first place but also weakens the Englishman's role as the supposed man of reason. Of course none of these problems had any impact on the film's enormous success in Russia where it broke box office records. A sequel, set in China and to feature action choreography from Jackie Chan's stunt team, is already in production.