There may be no greater test of a director's skills than the one room location setup. Having the bulk of a story set in one location with a few characters is perfect for the stage but much more problematic for film. Director Ryuhei Kitamura followed his cult/action/ zombie/samurai/horror/gunplay-in-the-woods breakthrough Versus with two films largely set in one location/one room- 2003's samurai vs. demon in a temple flick, Aragami, and 2002's futuristic deathrow prisoner vs. alien parasite in a cell film, Alive.
Sometime in the future... Sentenced to death for killing the gang that raped his girlfriend as well as said girlfriend, Tenshu Yashiro (Hideo Sakaki- Versus, Battlefield Baseball) has his execution carried out, but he survives the electrocution. This technicality gives the condemned man a set of choices- he can either go through another execution (and most likely die) or he can agree to take part in a mysterious experiment (and maybe live a tad longer).
Tenshu chooses option two and is put into a cell with another prisoner, the multiple offending, cackling, and off kilter Zeros. They aren't told what the experiment entails but are given whatever meal they want, some new duds, and a haircut. Then they wait. With some prodding (bright light cues, alarm bells)tensions between the two begin to creep up. It doesn't help that the two are opposites- Zeros being rambunctious and aggressive, while Tenshu is stoic and quiet, staring off into space for hours on end. Then, a wall lifts and they see a girl in the next cell.
Well, cutting to the nitty gritty, the girl first claims to be a witch, but we find out she is host to an alien parasite called an Isomer. The Isomer seeks out morally gray characters and inhabits their bodies, slowly taking over while imbuing them with its powers. The scientists, including the girls sister, and the government are trying to harness the parasites abilities. As to the the Isomer's origns, it is convoluted and silly, involving- no joke- a scientist eating a baboon. Needless to say, the Isomer does eventually get into our lead, Tenshu, but he seems to acclimate and control it, leading the eggheads to believe he might be the one they were looking for.
Okay, so Alive is no 12 Angry Men or The Petrified Forest, but it is a bit like Cube meets Das Experiment and manages to be entertaining despite (or, as the case may be, because of) its claustrophobic limitations. Unfortunately it is hampered by some sci fi action cliches. Adapted from a manga Tsutomu Takahashi, it suffers from what I will call, "The One" syndrome. When I saw The Matrix, I thought it was nothing special, just a decent mix of Philip K. Dick "question your reality" plotline with some martial arts and neat CGI. Later, when everyone went bonkers for the film like it was something that hadn't been seen before, I was surprised. Being a long time martial flick fan and fairly knowledgeable science fiction literature geek, it wasn't a big deal to me, just some old cliches in a new package. Alive has that same predictability.
Or to put it another way, when you see that Tenshu shucks his prison clothes and chooses an all leather outfit, you just know it won't be long before he's tossing soldiers across the room, leaping in the air, and dodging bullets. Just to make things clear, I'm harping on the style and feel. As a character, though he is a kind of a reluctant hero who does all kind of wirefu fighting, Tenshu is no Neo and his dilemma is one of being a condemned soul who feels morally unworthy of his second chance.
Ryuhei Kitamura has been on the fast track to cult action fandom. After Versus he has delivered a fairly steady stream of decent films and was entrusted to be the man behind Godzilla's supposed swan song, Godzilla: Final Wars. Now, while I think it is a perfectly fine b-film, Alive also bears the marks of his faltering points as an action director. When you get down to the basics of the actual action direction, Ryuhei Kitamura is a one and half trick pony. While an action scene might have one or two inspired shots, overall, he relies too much on a forever circling series of wide angle shots. When you look at the bulk of his work, it looks like he uses almost the exact some template for every action scene. While it's a good template, one still hopes he'll show he's got more tricks up his sleeve in the future.
The DVD: Media Blasters
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Well, this very dark looking film was clearly given some heavy digital rendering to give it a cohesive look. That look is one of dense shadows and a desaturated color scheme with a large lean towards near sepia tones and greenish backlighting. Media Blasters does a fair job with the material. Overall it is acceptable and a decent enough transfer but it does have some technical quirks. There are some compression and flagging issues that dull the experience, though one doesn't have to guess that the films dark visual pallette probably made it a hard film to transfer.
Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1 Japanese and English language, or Japanese 2.0 tracks, with optional English subtitles. The audio presentation is pretty well rounded. Dialogue is always nice and clear. The atmospheric noise, particularly the near constant industrial hum of the prison cell, is quite moody. The score also gets a good boost out of the rear and side channels. The action fx could use some better bass response. Finally, the subtitles are okay but a tad problematic with a few errors and speedy reader bits.
Extras: This two disc edition contains a second disc of extras.— Alive Theatrical Cut. — Making of Alive Featurette. — Cast Interviews. — Original and Promo Trailers — Commentary for the theatrical cut with moderator, director Ryuhei Kitamura and cast memebers Hideo Sakaki, Keishiro Shin, and Sakaguchi. The commentary tone is predominantly lighthearted jokes at each others expense, but you do get some decent behind the scenes info along with the good natured jabs.
Conclusion: Maybe, you could have the cast come over to your house and recreate the film in you living room. But, other than that, it is hard to imagine a better set of extras than a full blown theatrical cut of the film, with star and director's commentary, promotion material, plus over an hours worth (combined) of interviews and "making of" featurette. It isn't a great film. A basic edition would only get a "rent it", but this extra packed version certainly makes it worthy of a purchase.