It’s no surprise at all that Ryuhei Kitamura chose “Alive” as his first film post-”Versus”. Whereas that low-budget zombie/yakuza film was a meshing of hyper kinetic chaos and stylized action, “Alive” is a slightly bigger budget attempt at “Cube”-like tension and atmosphere. Unfortunately for Kitamura, while he may very well be the next John Woo when it comes to cool action, he is no Vincenzo Natali when it comes to creating tension and atmosphere out of very little.
Hideo Sakaki (the “villain” from “Versus”) plays Tenshu, a condemned murderer whose date with the electric chair ends with Tenshu still alive. Now “officially” dead, Tenshu is given the option of doing the whole electric chair thing for real or participate in an experiment and live — at least for a while. Tenshu agrees to door number two and ends up in a secret military installation with another condemned man who took the same option. This fellow, unfortunately, is insane, and was condemned for good reasons — he’s a serial killer with dozens of female victims under his belt. Tenshu, by comparison, was condemned for killing the men who raped his girlfriend.
For its first 40 minutes, Kitamura and the screenplay (based on the manga comic book by Tsutomu Takahashi) refuses to let us know what is going on. We see scientist types watching the two prisoners’ every move from an adjacent room and controlling everything that happens inside the large metal room the two prisoners are housed in. As the days tick by, the scientists seem to be pushing the prisoners to kill each other — but for what purpose? Or more importantly, why are we forced to sit through 40 minutes that, by the 45-minute mark, seems to have very little relevance to the rest of the movie’s plot?
Once the “Cube”-like nature of “Alive” gets tossed out the window in favor of CGI and talks about alien conspiracies, we are finally allowed in on the movie’s actual plot. We learn that the prisoners are being subjected to conditions meant to spur them into manic violence, and thus lure some sort of “alien infection” out of an infected woman and into one of them. The infected woman shows up out of nowhere, locked in her own glass cage that, although she’s supposed to be infected with an entity that gives her “unlimited” power, she can’t seem to break out of. (Might want to rethink that whole “unlimited power” thing then, no?)
Soon one of those Shady Government Officials working for a Shady Government Agency arrives to take over the project, proclaiming his intentions to use the alien as — Can you guess? No? Why, the Shady Government Official wants the alien for the same reason all Movie Shady Government Officials want to capture aliens — as potential weapons, silly! As a bone to American viewers, or maybe just fans of UFO movies, the film manages to screwball the U.S. Government into being involved in the conspiracy, which means — drumroll, please — Area 51 gets an honorable mention! (What’s an alien movie without someone mentioning Area 51, after all.)
Which leads to this: for a Kitamura movie, “Alive” offers up some strangely uninteresting action. The fights seem perfunctory, as if the producers demanded that Kitamura add action when he didn’t want to. As a result, the action sequences are dull and drab, just like the set construction of the singular room the prisoners are kept in. If you know your science fiction and guessed that the set is basically the set designers painting everything metallic silver and decorating the walls with arbitrary red lights and bright white fluorescents, then give yourself brownie points. And apparently someone forgot to clean the camera lens — or is that just fancy aesthetics? Nevermind.
The other big letdown with “Alive” is that it’s just so blasted…unoriginal. Even the action sequences in the second half consists of scenes stolen from other movies. Kitamura, an admitted fan of James Cameron’s oeuvre, has apparently been dying to redo the scene from Cameron’s “Aliens” where the Marines are attacked inside the alien hub. The scene consists of supposedly macho Marines running around like chickens with their heads cut off as the aliens pick them off one by one. Here, we get a group of supposedly macho Faceless Government Agents who runs around like chickens with their heads cut off as Tenshu, now powered by the alien entity, picks them off one by one. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s even a pipe-through-the-chest kill courtesy of “Commando”.
The thing about “Alive” is that it’s full of untapped potential. Even the film’s second half, which is filled with action, still managed to find long stretches where nothing happens, and people are either just sitting or standing around chatting about their past and whatnot. In the end, I suppose Kitamura boxed himself in with the intention of testing himself, trying to prove that he can direct without resorting to fisticuffs every other second. Unfortunately Kitamura is wrong. He can’t direct without resorting to fisticuffs every other second, and when he tries, the movie is just a big lump of…well, it’s just a big lump of not much anything.
“Alive” is a terribly dull, dreadfully uninteresting, and impossibly generic film. And judging by the far superior “Azumi”, Kitamura’s film post-”Alive”, the director must have come to the realization that he does, indeed, need fisticuffs to erupt every other second.
Ryuhei Kitamura (director)
CAST: Hideo Sakaki …. Tenshu Yashiro
Ryo …. Yurika
Koyuki …. Asuka