Alive (2002)

Rating: C-

Dir: Ryuhei Kitamura
Star: Hideo Sakaki, Ryo, Koyuki, Jun Kunimura

Somehow, despite having been a huge fan of Kitamura’s previous film, Versus, I hadn’t even heard of the follow up for over twenty years, until I randomly stumbled across it on Tubi. To be frank, I can entirely understand why it flew under my radar. It’s a classic example of a director having a sophomore slump, getting away from his strengths because he “wanted to prove that I wasn’t just some guy who could only direct films where zombies blasted the hell out of each other.” Instead, this is a weird mash-up which begins as a prison movie, shifts into an alien parasite film, and ends up foreshadowing Resident Evil: Apocalypse by a couple of years. The destination isn’t worth it, yet the journey has its moments.

Tenshu Yashiro (Sakaki) has been sentenced to death for killing the man who raped his girlfriend. He “survives” the execution and is given an ultimatum: agree to take part in an experiment, or be executed again. He opts to live, and is put in a cell with another Death Row inmate, Gondoh, and it appears the authorities are trying to provoke them to kill each other, in a psychological test. Then a woman, Yurika Saegusa (Ryo), shows up on the other side of a plexiglass barrier, and things get… weird. For she is host to an alien entity, the Isomer, whose craft crash-landed in Namibia. The creature has a slew of abilities, and will migrate when it feels it has access to a “better” host. That would be Yashiro. Or maybe Gondoh.

It doesn’t quite explode in the all-out violencefest I expected – and, to be honest, for which I was hoping. Yashiro is rather too angsty, frequently seeing his dead girlfriend in the form of Yurika. Complicating matter further, the captive’s sister, Asuka (Koyuki) is one of the scientists monitoring proceedings. Though things on the observers’ side don’t go smoothly either, with the military-intelligence complex muscling in, aware of the potential offered by the alien. Turns out, they’ve been operating their own shadow project on the side too, fusing alien DNA into the human, to create a supersoldier, Zeros (Tak Sakaguchi, the star of Versus). What better test for their crossbreed than to pit him against an alien-hosting Yashiro?

This does eventually end in a battle between the two, though at 118 minutes long in the director’s cut, it takes its time getting there. You’re left to admire where the budget went, which apparently was… the sets. Yeah, because those were so good in Versus, right? Oh, hang on: it was shot in a goddamn forest. The final fight is reasonably impressive, except for it being buried in a welter of digital effects – again, in opposition to the clean visuals of Versus. It’s likely a good job I didn’t see this when it came out, or I’d probably have written Kitamura off as a one-hit wonder, given this largely generic bowl of Japanese action-SF.