Years after two of the most entertaining films to ever come out of South Korea – The Thieves and Assassination – director Choi Dong-hoon finally returns with Alienoid, the first part of a massive, ambitious period sci-fi action blockbuster diptych. The film marks the arrival of the Korean film industry in the summer sci-fi blockbusting arena, a genre the country had heretofore avoided. The story? Alien criminals who have been imprisoned inside human bodies for centuries want to break out of their prisons of flesh and terraform Earth to conquer it. Super robot warriors from said alien civilization are tasked with stopping them in the present as well as the 14th century. Dizzy yet?
For a while, it’s a bit hard to really know where Choi is trying to go with his temporally divided narrative: the scenes in the present day and those in the 14th century seem completely unrelated, presenting vastly different characters and objectives. At first, it seems the main characters are going to be a pair of futuristic robots and a Goryeo Dynasty dosa (master of tao magic), but the narrative progressively switches focus to the baby that is saved in the opening scene, who grows to be a young girl in the present, and a young warrior woman in the past (yes).
Perhaps Alienoid’s biggest sin is its attempt to overcomplexify a story that is not actually that complicated. Each character’s motivation is crystal clear and the main narrative drive (the aliens escape their prisons and start terraforming Earth) should not have taken so long to kick into second gear. But it feels like Choi wants to give his film the biggest possible scale, to make it appear like a sprawling epic adventure that spans centuries and threatens existence itself. This results in a film that revels in minor twists and turns while the script could most definitely have been streamlined, and maybe a couple of secondary characters eliminated altogether. As it stands, there are several blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments, and any lack of attention from the audience could very easily lead to them getting confused or thoroughly lost in the plot.
With that said, one must commend Choi’s mastery of the cinematic language, which almost allows him to overcome the heavy-handed writing. The pace is brisk, dynamic, and gives each main actor the space they need to make an impact on the audience. Kim Woo-bin, in particular, plays Guard and Thunder, the dual robot in charge of monitoring the alien prisoners. Effortlessly switching from one character to the other, he impresses as the stoic Guard and entertains as the goofier Thunder. Ryu Jun-yeol plays Muruk, a hapless magician who should not take long in winning over the viewers. Starting out more as a comedic character, he progressively shows more range, eventually becoming a charismatic presence during its fantasy-tinged action set pieces. Kim Tae-ri, also known here as “the girl who shoots thunder”, plays the adult version of Ean. She was seen recently in last year’s Space Sweepers, as well and Park Chan-wook’s Handmaiden in 2016, and manages to make her mark as an endearing gun-wielding warrior stuck in the ancient past.
It helps that the film doesn’t take itself too seriously, allowing itself to navigate relatively freely between wonder, swagger, humour, and genuine emotions (the latter point mainly thanks to the younger version of Ean in the present time, played by the young Choi Yoo-ri). The sense of wonder, however, is clearly what Choi aims for above all else here. Starting from a purely 1950s/Golden Age of Sci-Fi premise, the story harvests the possibilities of time travel, aliens, science, and magic to create an adventure that clearly wants to give the audience the time of their life at the cinema.
The second half of the film kicks into high gear and takes us on a pure roller coaster ride of action with two very long, very impressive set pieces. The first, set in the present, pits the super-advanced battle bot Guard against an equally powerful artificial being sent to Earth to free the alien criminals. The two androids engage in a brutal, big-scale duel/chase that ends up creating massive collateral damage. For obvious reasons, the fights appear to be purely CGI (the way the robots move being quite otherworldly at times), but stunt coordinators Yoo Sang-sub and Ryu Sung-chul probably worked off precise pre-visualised material to avoid all feelings of weightlessness that often plague CG fights. The physicality of the robots here can be felt, and their skirmishes are heightened by cool ideas in terms of action design. The quality of the CGI is first-rate, at a level never seen before in the Korean industry.
If the viewer isn’t already exhausted and satiated after this extended set piece, worry not: the film continues with a second large scale battle, this time set in the past, and therefore more in line with the aesthetics of the wuxia movies that came out of Hong Kong and China in the 1990s/2000s, with the added novelty of a modern gun being present as well. It even includes the type of humour one would expect in this genre back then when a pair of characters are frozen and must in some way ingest an antidote in response. While just as exciting, this final climatic battle is less unique in South East Asian cinema, and therefore perhaps a little bit less memorable.
Science fiction has remained rather rare in Korean cinema, with films such as the whimsical Save the Green Planet! or the very patriotic time-travel actioner 2009: Lost Memories being some of the exceptions that have travelled across continents. Time travel was explored further in Yesterday or 11 A.M., the latter being a meticulously written and enjoyable exercise in eternalist time theory. Last year saw the release of two Korean sci-fi actioners: the Netflix space opera Space Sweepers, and the superpower themed The Clone. None, with the exception of Space Sweepers, had the ambition or the means to compete with western blockbusters, but Alienoid stands out as the most expensive and expansive Korea production to date. Its Golden Age approach won’t bring much to the table in terms of discursive sci-fi ideas, but it harnesses the sense of wonder it creates beautifully.
Alienoid is unmistakably a Choi Dong-hoon film, the logical endpoint of a filmography dedicated to popular genre films crafted with diligence and energy. Aided by director of photography Kim Tae-kyung, Choi manages to impart a sense of dynamism and rhythm to every moment. Suffering from a chaotic, needlessly long script, the film convinces nonetheless thanks to its generosity and willingness to show the audience images they might not have seen before. Bring on part 2.
Special thanks to Sarah Clinton from WellGo USA for making this review possible.