No matter how hard we try, we are always bound to a system. At birth, we’re in the hands of our caregivers. In adolescence, we’re in the hands of those who guide us. In adulthood, we’re in the hands of the work force (either at the mercy of a labor leader or the consumer base). We’re in the hands of farmers for the food we eat and the clothes we wear all our lives. But, even more so, whatever our station, we’re also in the hands of the guiding forces left behind by history prior to our arrival and who lead the world through our lives. We can seek autonomy, but, try as we might, we are always bound to a system as long as we share space on Earth. To explore the systems that bind us, writer/director Viktor Ginzburg (Generation P) adapts Victor Pelevin’s 2006 novel Ампир В (Empire V) into 114-minute science fiction drama Ампир V (Empire V) that posits a world in which the Fifth Empire (post-capitalism) has been in place for ages, overseen in secret by a vampire collective. Set to have its world premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival 2023, though it lacks the mayhem of Blade (1998) and the opulence of Interview with a Vampire (1994), Empire V opts to sink its teeth into the metaphor of control, selecting conversation and pedigree over satisfying one’s baser expectations.
Roman (Pavel Tabakov) is a failed journalism student living at home while working a day job as a loader. His reality is not in any sense matching the idealistic hopes of his imagination. Things change, however, when circumstances place him to be next in line to join a vampire collective. Reborn as Rama, he undergoes the teachings of multiple masters in subjects like the art of fashion, discourse, self-defense, and love-making, all while learning about what his new life means. However, unlike fellow new recruit Hera (Taya Radchenko), to whom he takes a liking, Rama always seems a step behind in each interaction, creating a sense that perhaps his existence isn’t as welcome as it appears. Unable to turn back, Rama must go deeper downward if he’s going to make it through.
If one’s goes by the trailer, a sense forms of a misogynistic world in which men (via Rama) are the roosters of the world, able to take advantage of all the spoils, whether they be wealth or women. To a degree, this is accurate as one of Rama’s first “challenges” is to utilize his skills and he opts to do so with the woman we see in the trailer. It’s here that the newly-powered Rama presents himself in the expected fashion, drinking of the woman before bedding her. What’s different from expectation is several fold. For one, Rama never makes contact to drink, rather it’s as though something compels the blood out of the woman’s skin when he draws his teeth close. For two, instead of the traditional strength-enhancement via blood consumption (referred to as “red liquid” by members of the collective), Rama is given information, all of her’s, in fact. Through one drop of blood, he’s able to see everything she’s experienced, know all she knows, and he uses that to bed her. A cheetah may get a paint job, but it cannot remove its spots and, in this vein, the vampires within Ginzburg’s film still tread a similar path of objectification by taking something from someone without consent. Impressively, the way the scene is captured on screen, the focus isn’t the sex (the expectation) or the nudity, but what Rama does as a result of having had sex with the woman. He doesn’t appear either freed or chained, observing the woman as neither beneath him nor requiring coddling for taking advantage — he just is. With the introduction of Hera, the idea of other women shifts away, and the only other presentation of women, though sexual by virtue of situation within the scene, are not degraded or abused. Instead, a message of consent and respect is presented and enforced, something which both defies the expectation of living as a being above society while also placing Rama back within a system of control.
The obvious description for Empire V is that it’s almost like every other story in which a protagonist finds themselves going on a journey of self through a discovery of a world within a world. The one comparison I couldn’t shake from my head is the Mark Millar/J.G. Jones limited Wanted, the first issue of which was published in December 2003 and adapted into film in 2008, which features a sad sack cis white dude, Wesley Gibson, who discovers he’s not only the heir to vast wealth, but that he’s the son of the world’s greatest hitman and must learn to harness his genetically similar talents in order to be granted his inheritance. Through the story, our Wesley sheds his “weaknesses” in order to do despicable things and take his place in the pantheon of super villains who control his world in secret. The comic places a great deal of emphasis on what horrors Wesley grows comfortable with through his lessons. Conversely, the narrative makes great pains to do two things: keep a great deal of truths from Rama until absolutely necessary and grant unto Rama the retention of a questioning mind. The first is frustrating to the character as more and more situations arise that he’s absolutely unprepared for, while the second enables the film to delve into the concepts of control and enable the conversations we observe to naturally explore these complex ideas. Empire V is intended to be satirical of consumerism and capitalism and, on this, it succeeds a great deal as Rama openly challenges many of the concepts that keep the vampires in charge. Personally, that Rama is selected by chance to join this collective, rather than by evaluation, speaks to the notion that looking the part and being in the right place often has more to do with your success than your actual talents. Going further, that Rama is only given enough training and tutelage to prevent larger damage to the collective pokes at the upward mobility of mediocre cis white men who find themselves in charge of society. Or, at the very least, able to utilize the advantages of being perceived as one of the elite. Unlike Wesley, though, Rama never really goes through a transformation of any kind (not much more than human to vampire, anyway) and who he is at the end is essentially who he is at the beginning, just with abilities. The satire of Empire V may want to have the audience realize that this is what makes Rama interesting, that he’s retained that which made him human despite his transformation, yet the ending of the film doesn’t deliver a proper pay-off where that aspect matters in the larger scheme. Considering that the film has a listed run-time of 140 minutes on social sites, but is under 120 minutes in the version screened for this review, I can’t help but wonder if perhaps some significant scenes were cut between the initial 2022 screenings and the wide release that may better support the intended impact in the ending.
Even if the higher concepts don’t pull you in, the presentation of the vampires and their world will. We get glimpses of this in the trailer, with CG images that swirl together like dreams (or nightmares). The intent of these sequences is to better convey the internal process of what Rama’s going through at different moments, whether it be the ingesting of a clear liquid that contains knowledge from a specific individual or experiencing the entire history of the vampire collective. These sequences are imaginative and wondrous, designed and executed with a creativity that makes one wonder just how they were conceived in the source material. In the traditional, physical scenes, Alexey Rodionov’s (Come and See) cinematography keeps everything grounded, a choice that seems antithetical to the satirical exploration of consumption, yet conveys a feeling that even amplified to super-human status, the world itself is unchanged. Consider the films of the John Wick franchise — are they shot in a way that appears to take place in the real world or something more fantastical? There’s a great deal of death in the Wick films, yet there’s little worry thanks to the fabulous styling. By opting to maintain a sense of realism, Rodionov asserts that there are consequences to be had for the choices made and no amount of red liquid will change that.
With its mission to eviscerate the consumptive class and those in power, Empire V does succeed in its interrogation of systems and the arrogance that comes from the people at the presumed top. It doesn’t matter if one is human or super-human, there is always a reliance on others and, therefore, a system comes into being that must be maintained. However, where the vampires Rama meets too often feed themselves through a false sense of invulnerability and superiority, it’s by being human, by being considerate and thoughtful, that things change and the system may evolve through Rama’s involvement. Through this a question forms as to whether the vampires are actually in charge of anything at all, if their system doesn’t actually control them in the maintenance of it, and whether it’s the vampires who design the system or the system which designed the vampires. It’s a bit of an ouroboros philosophically, but Ginzburg threads the needle well enough that the questions linger when the action stops.
Screening during Fantasia International Film Festival 2023.
For more information, head to the official Empire V website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.