★★ / ★★★★
The title points to the possibility that this undead picture will explore the role of social media following a rapid spread of a virus infection, but screenwriters Cho Il-hyung (who directs) and Matt Naylor set this curious angle aside in favor of typical isolation humdrum that we’ve seen countless of times before in American and international films alike, from the experimental indie to the mainstream variety. What results is a likable but disappointing traipse through the familiar instead of a daring foray into new horizons. There is nothing special to see here.
The opening sequences show promise. We meet a young man, possibly in his early- to mid-twenties, named Joon-woo (Yoo Ah-in) who is supposed to be the stereotypical male Zoomer (Generation Z—zombies, get it?)—obsessed with video games, very much in tune with technology and social media, whose alarm goes off at 10 o’clock in the morning. We observe Joon-woo as he learns about his new reality, from news on television to YouTube videos. So far, so good. But in zombie apocalypse films there is a certainty: internet will go down, news will go off air, cell phones will be of little use. This is the point in which the writers ought to have exercised their wildest imagination. They do not rise to the task.
Instead, we go through the usual (but necessary) motions of the character running low on essentials like food and water. (But there is plenty of spirits in the liquor cabinet.) Eventually, our protagonist begins to feel lonely in his high-rise apartment considering that his parents and sister have not returned for days—likely to be dead due to an ominous voicemail. These standard trappings are almost boring—but nearly every moment is elevated by the highly expressive Yoo. There is an air of effortlessness about him; he has a prodigious talent for finding just the right rhythm and conjure entertainment out of ennui, humor, and desperation. In the middle of his one-man performance, which lasts until about the forty-minute mark, I became convinced he should be cast in major Hollywood productions—especially in smart romantic comedies.
A major plot point is his interactions with a neighbor who lives across the building. Her name is Shin-hye (Kim Yoo-bin) and she no typical damsel-in-distress. I enjoyed that Kim portrays Shin-hye with a certain toughness but one that is never off-putting. We get the impression that, in terms of survival, Joon-woo needs Shin-hye more than the other way around. When these characters are apart—with zombies waiting below—there is a slight tonal shift from survival horror to an unlikely romance—curious but it has nothing at all to do with the picture’s thesis regarding the role of social media while self-isolating in the face of a pandemic.
Zombie cosmetics are nothing memorable. I’ve seen better makeup work from the early seasons of Frank Darabont’s “The Walking Dead.” However, there are a few inspired moments. For instance, the undead are able to remember things they knew how to do when they were alive like opening doors. They are sensitive to noises so anything above a certain decibel triggers them to run like hell to the source of the sound. Perhaps the best is a terrifying scene involving a fireman who remembers how to climb. I wish there had been more of these genuine thrills in order to make up for its thematic shortcomings. By all means, distract us by using adrenaline-fueled encounters and creative kills. Many who sign up for zombie movies want to be scared. Social commentary done well is icing on the cake.
“#Alive” is as limp as a zombie that hasn’t had its pound of flesh for weeks. While I found some enjoyment out of it, mainly due to the performance by the lead actor, most of what’s at offer is neither fresh nor inspired. There are countless zombie flicks out there. Here, the filmmakers underachieve on two fronts: a) to make their work stand out and b) inject enough inspiration so that it stands the test of time despite the familiar trappings. Like so many other films, including the ones outside the undead sub-genre, those shaping the picture have failed to ask themselves what makes this story worth telling—and sitting through.