From the moment that Thomas Cocquerel‘s eyelids flutter open in the dank hospital that provides the grimy backdrop for Alive, we know he’s in trouble. Severely injured, he is reduced to dragging himself across the floor of the ruined building. He soon finds himself, along with an unidentified female patient (Camille Stopps), under the sadistic care of a mysterious doctor.
The role of the doctor is one that Angus McFadyen, best known for his turn as Robert the Bruce in Braveheart, attacks with both hands. His mad doctor is capable of brutality and cruelty. However, the sadism is all the more sinister for being delivered with a caring, paternalistic demeanour. His line delivery is pure Anthony Hopkins (with only the occasional slip into Ronnie Corbett) and his avuncular bedside manner is what really gives the film its unsettling edge.
The hospital itself is as much a character as the principle cast, with rust, grime and lingering shadows making up most of the film’s colour palette. Even when we get brief glimpses of the world beyond the stifling corridors, it’s still a bleak experience.
Although this consistency makes the film visually striking, it can also become monotonous. As both of the ‘patients’ have lost their memories and are only able to access flashes of distorted scenes from their pasts, the grimness of the hospital has no counterpoint. Introducing contrasting elements may have prevented the unrelenting gloom from losing some of its effect towards the end of the movie.
Perhaps the film’s biggest failing is its sense of disconnectedness. We wake up with an unnamed protagonist, who then makes an unnamed ally, and they face off against an unnamed villain. There are no backstories, very little contextual information and the film’s commitment to immediacy doesn’t always pay off. In some ways, it has the feel of a survival horror video game more than a film, with the visual flair and unrelenting misery of an Outlast sequel.
As the film moves into its final act, the plot accelerates effectively. The two protagonists are sufficiently recovered to attempt to turn the tables on their tormentor, but the hospital is his domain and he refuses to let them leave without a fight. The frantic scramble through hospital corridors with the ramblings of the doctor echoing in the background are perhaps the strongest sequences in the film.
At its very best, Alive is a cross between Saw and Misery, with two helpless invalids at the mercy of an outwardly caring psychopath with malicious intent. At worst, it can be a bit of a one-note thriller, but is still elevated by a memorable villain. That said, although it hints at the possibility of a sequel, the world of the film is not fleshed out enough by the time the credits roll to make us keen to return there.