Ryuhei (Versus, Azumi) Kitamura’s Alive begins with a premise so intriguing and unexpected that I’m loathe to talk about it openly in a review. It is one of the most well-thought-out and -executed SF movies I’ve seen that doesn’t depend on a giant budget or massive effects scenes to make its points — in fact, the effects and fights are almost an afterthought.
In that sense, it reminded me of Vincenzo Natali’s equally compact and effective movies Cube and (to a degree) Cypher, both of which also grabbed me from the opening frames and never looked back. If that description intrigues you and you’d simply like to be surprised, go see the film and come back here when you’re done. Otherwise, read on; I still plan on preserving the film’s numerous secrets.
Alive begins with Tenshu (Hideo Sakaki) locked in a gloomy maximum-security prison. His crime: murdering the six thugs who raped his girlfriend, and then murdering her. Guards escort Tenshu out and strap him into the electric chair. When they throw the switch, he realizes after a second the current isn’t nearly enough to kill him.
After Tenshu's fake death in the electric chair, he elects to participate
in what seems like a psychological experiment. It's far more than that.
“Most prisoners would simply die of fright when faced with this,” the warden tells him. “You’re the first one to survive.” He gives Tenshu two choices: Die in the chair (which this time will most definitely be set to a lethal voltage), or “go somewhere else.” Tenshu is determined to survive, and chooses the second option despite the warden’s advice: “I’ll level with you, th ough: There are wor se things than death.”
They knock him out, and when he recover s, he is indeed in “another place” — an industrial-looking environment that’s reminiscent of one of the play stages of Doom 3. They have toilets, showers, meals, beds — all the comforts of home, within reason. Locked in with Tenshu is another “survivor” of the chair, Gondoh, a rapist and murderer. The two of them are now participants in an experiment: neither are permitted to leave, but they are free to do as they please within the confines of that room. No one else can enter. They can ask for food or clothes, but weapons are out of the question, along with drugs or any form of contact with the outside world like TVs or radios.
The two of them eat, get drunk, play idle games, glare at each other sullenly. They can’t stand each other. Tenshu just wants to be left alone, but Gondoh needles him at every opportunity, ridiculing the other man’s passivity, threatening to kill him. “Did it ever occur to you that may be just what they want?” Tenshu retorts. His passivity is, in a way, a survival tactic: you can’t get into trouble when you don’t do anything. But Gondoh insists on bragging about his crimes, his insecurities with women (“After a while I just started kidnapping them to save time!”), until Tenshu finally snaps and smashes a wine bottle over the other man’s head. He’s rediscovering his long-suppressed capacity for murder, which will turn out to have consequences far beyond what he can imagine.
Things get worse. Their captors cut their meals down to one a day, raise the temperature in the room, play ear-splitting noise every half hour to keep them from sleeping. Then they raise the ante even further by presenting them with a woman (albeit in an isolated part of the cell). “I’m a witch,” she says with a smile, and her very presence serves antagonizes the chivalrous Tenshu and the misogynist Gondoh all the more. For them to meet her, one of them must kill the other. Violence erupts, and then we start to discover the true purpose behind all of this. It’s not a psychological experiment, but a screening procedure, and whoever passes may be responsible for the fate of the whole planet.
It turns out the girl is a host for something called an “Isomer,” an energy organism of sorts that attaches itself to violent and deadly people. Whenever it’s locked in mortal combat with another, it will enter the body of whoever appears to be strongest — ergo, it’s virtually indestructible. To keep it alive, however, they have to keep presenting it with a series of expendable hosts, although the host has the advantage of never growing old. The whole movie is constructed like a giant cinematic version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma: everything is tradeoffs, zero-sum games, and a particularly brutal set of Mexican Stand-offs. This makes it doubly fascinating, because we’re never certain where the film will go next even when there seem to be no valid choices for anyone involved.
Unlike most other movies that depend on revealing secrets for the further development of the story, Alive actually gets better the further it goes along — more intriguing, and also more disturbing. It is also wholly original in its progression; there was never a mom ent when I said to myself, “Oh, this is what’ll happen,” but I never felt the movie was evolving arbitrarily, either. The movie???s last twenty to thirty minutes contain an astounding number of reversals of fortune, but what’s even more amazing is that they all add up and make sense, and are motivated by the movie’s deeper implications. Consider: The Isomer only moves to another host when it senses that it can be defeated, but what happens when it isn’t capable of correctly assessing that? And what happens when it enters into a host that has the capacity for moral choices that may be bad for the individual but good for the species?
Kitamura is turning into one of Japan’s most interesting directors. I didn’t like Azumi, which went on for far too long and didn’t have nearly enough real material to justify its length, but I was a big fan of Versus, and am looking forward to what he has planned with the final installment in the Godzilla series. Here he’s made an SF movie that isn’t about spaceships and gadgets and guns, but about ideas and principles and the merciless logic of no-win situations. And it’s ten times as exciting as Azumi ever was, even if it contains maybe one-tenth of the action.