Empires Of The Deep: The Chaotic Story Of The Unreleased 3D Fantasy Epic

The history of film is littered with projects that struggled to get off the ground. Some of these films, like James Cameron's sci-fi extravaganza "Avatar," were eventually realized to global acclaim. But it's hard to say if we'll ever see the release of "Empires of the Deep," the dream project of Chinese real estate billionaire Jon Jiang. Filmed in 2010 for a budget of over $130 million, the movie has since sunk from the public eye save for a handful of trailers and angry behind-the-scenes reports of mismanagement. 

What consigned the film to life under the waves? Could this story of Greek soldiers, mermen, and undersea creatures battling it out in the deeps one day see a resurgence?

Jon Jiang's Siren Song

Jon Jiang lived and breathed movies, and was willing to invest however much money it took to bring "Empires of the Deep" to life. He consulted "Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back" director Irvin Kershner for advice, and obtained a suite of virtual cameras to be operated by "Avatar" 3-D camera operator Anthony Arendt. There was every chance that "Empires of the Deep" might have defied the odds to become a success that, if not on par with "The Lord of the Rings," could have matched a later co-production like 2016's "The Great Wall".

But every step along the way was a disaster. "Catwoman" director and experienced special-effects artist Jean-Cristophe "Pitof" Comar quit after realizing the project was unworkable. Actresses like Sharon Stone and Monica Bellucci, early hires for the role of the Mermaid Queen, dipped from the project. Kershner distanced himself as a producer and then escaped completely. The saddest case is Jonathan Lawrence, a struggling director who saw "Empires of the Deep" as his big chance to make it in the film industry. After six months of seeing his cast and crew subjected to poor planning and an unsafe work environment, he resigned from the project.

Rocks Fall, Everybody Runs

While "Empires of the Deep" reportedly had script problems and goofy costume design, these were not what doomed the movie. In a series of blog posts, an extra from the film detailed terrible working conditions: mistreatment of animals, poorly planned stunts, and costumes glued to human skin which left terrible rashes. Between hours of waiting, actors risked their lives on sets that included rock quarries (where falling rocks smashed spotlights) and the flood-prone town of Qinyu in Fujian Province. Lawrence seemingly confirmed this report to Charlie Jane Anders in a Gizmodo piece, asserting that he quit because he wouldn't "stand for the cast I brought from the U.S. being brought into potentially life-threatening environments."

Enormous fantasy blockbusters are difficult to produce. Only an experienced and detail-oriented craftsman like James Cameron, backed by a team of experts, can make a film like "Avatar." At the time "Empires of the Deep" was in production, the Chinese film industry had its own great successes, with 2008's "Red Cliff" and 2010's epic television adaptation of "Three Kingdoms" winning both popular and critical acclaim. Wealthy and passionate he might have been, Jon Jiang did not have the connections or the talent to create something on the same level. Unwilling to be defeated, he proceeded to sacrifice the careers of his cast and crew, who hoped for the best even in the midst of a hellish shoot, on that altar.

Does Empires of the Deep Have a Future?

While production on "Empires of the Deep" supposedly wrapped, it was never released. The film's enormous budget has since been outdone by China's epic 2021 war film "The Battle of Lake Changjin," which cost over $200 million to produce and boasts famous directors like Chen Kaige and Tsui Hark. But "Empires of the Deep" might not be sunk yet. In a 2016 feature in The Atavist Magazine, Jon Jiang insisted to writer Mitch Moxley that his film would be released one day. That year Jiang's crew launched a crowdfunding attempt to prepare "Empires" for theatrical release, only to quickly run aground.

Today's Chinese film industry has seen successes in animation (driven by 2019's revolutionary "Ne Zha"), television drama (international smash hit "The Untamed") and blockbuster military agitprop (the aforementioned "Battle of Lake Changjin"). Could a film like "Empires of the Deep" find its place? We shouldn't underestimate somebody like Jon Jiang, who's already spent so much of other people's money and time to achieve his dream. If he can't achieve the success of his idols Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, he might one day succeed at emulating Neil Breen.