Alive (2002)

What a strange film.

Or is it better described as two strange films in one?

After all it starts out a psychological drama about two convicts in a secret prison, forced to take part in a secret experiment, — which mostly seems to involve waiting around for something to happen and possibly trying to kill each other — and ends with an explosive finale we’ve been expecting since we saw that this one was directed by Ryûhei Kitamura.

Kitamura is a Japanese director who earned a solid cult film reputation with his film Versus.  He also made one of my favorite Godzilla films, Godzilla: Final Wars [Gojira: Fainaru uôzu] (2004), which features a similar explosion of flashy, Matrix-inspired martial arts in between all the giant monster action.

If the curious duality of the film wasn’t strange enough, Alive features one of the strangest visual schemes I’ve seen in a film since the “it shouldn’t work but it does” overall brown scheme of Jeunet et Caro’s Delicatessen.  It is so dark that nearly all the color gets washed out — and yet the all the many lights in the prison are dazzling white which only seem to illumine a tiny space right around them.

And somehow, despite all the concentrated darkness, and the overwhelming blacks, the action is always clear.

The effect is dazzling and unique — and probably the most memorable part of the entire film.

When convicted murderer Tenshu survives his execution, he’s given the chance to live, as long as he submits to an experiment.

But then that experiment proves to be nothing more than staying in one room with another murderer who survived his execution

But things really start getting complicated once they meet the third prisoner in this huge complex, a young woman who introduces herself as a witch, and seems to have incredible powers.

And Tenshu sees her as his dead girlfriend…

Now all this turns out to be about a mysterious parasite which might be alien or super-evolutionary — or something like that.  I don’t suppose it really matters much as it gives us the excuse for some wild and over-the-top fights, with a bit of bullet time and even a monstrous creature.

Now I’ll admit that this is a film which appeals to my basic dualities as a filmgoer: I love a good mystery and psychological thriller, which takes its time telling us a story — and yet, at the same time, I love wild-eyed and hyperactive action films, too.  Alive satisfied both of those desires: I found the scenes with the two men playing off each other in their shared room fascinating and mysterious — but it didn’t bother me when Alive switched into high gear like I knew it would, and the battles were underway.

However, a lot of the people who’ve seen it complain that everything fell apart in action nonsense in the second part after a strong start — and a lot of the complain about the long, slow, dull build-up before the Versus style action they came to see finally gets in gear.

Perhaps I am in the minority on this one, but I found this a fascinating and bizarre science fiction action hybrid, which is better at entertaining the audience than it is at making sense.

But, hey, it’s Japanese, we’re used to that.

So many of you out there now know which half of this film you’re going to hate.  And the rest of you?

Well, if you can accept this film for what it is, then it’s definitely worth a look.

Although I will warn you it is subtitled.

Not that you’ll need them quite as much in the second half…

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