Whether it lands with the general public or not, there’s nothing like a big swing in art, something that extends itself perhaps farther than it should go, never quite breaking its own rules as it bites off more than it can chew. These big swings have become underdogs in cinema because, more often than not, to attempt such a thing is to invite derision at best, utter failure at worst. Writer/director Choi Dong-hoon’s (Assassination) latest project, Alienoid, is one such project as it’s not only a science-fiction fantasy adventure of the present, but an action comedy of the past, requiring two seemingly disparate narratives to play out, jumping from one to the other, until the audience discovers the connection. To pull this off, Choi must spend a great deal of time setting up characters and concepts, something which modern audience have little patience for, especially when a film requires more than two hours as Alienoid does. But for those willing to take a chance, Alienoid delivers on its promise of compelling action, interesting characters, and concepts that push what we’ve seen of period/modern action in creative ways.
After the conclusion of a war planets away, a decision was made to imprison the offending parties within the minds of unsuspecting humans, a way to lock them up and keep them far away. To do so requires a synthetic Guard (Kim Woo-bin) and his assistant, named Thunder (also Kim Woo-bin), to monitor Earth to ensure none of the prisoners escape. When a prison break is attempted, the resulting battle won’t just take place in the now, but more than 600 years ago, as mages of the past and warriors of the present converge on a time-bending dagger that holds the fate of more than one planet in its blade.
The simplest way to describe Alienoid, eschewing the sci-fi fantasy trappings, is that it’s an adult adventure for the child in all of us. There’s deceit and deception, alien abduction and loss of agency, clever battles between dosas (defined as Korean tao magicians in the press notes), and time travel. It’s like taking all the individual things that inspire one’s imagination and blending them together into one substantive dish. To accomplish this, Choi must balance the script to ensure that everything that occurs in the 143-minute first-part-of-a-two-part-story adventure flows while dealing with the unruly task of both introducing two timelines’ worth of concepts while not drowning in exposition. For the most part, Choi achieves this goal, jumping back and forth, initially seeming random and disconnected, but as one goes further into the film, all the individual threads reveal a (not necessarily complex) tapestry that raises questions as it answers others, leading to a satisfying conclusion before tapping out in preparation for Part Two.
Unlike other time-hopping properties which use multiple chronologies to tell a story, Alienoid can’t be reshuffled or restructured in any way to tighten the flow, otherwise it would risk some of the narrative surprises Choi places along the way. What’s lovely about Choi’s narrative approach is that by the time the audience figures a few things out, if we figure out a few things, we’ve spent enough time with the characters to remain invested in how things play out. For example, in the recent The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022), the advertising tried to make Pedro Pascal’s Javi Gutierrez appear to be a bad guy, but the moment anyone notices his iPhone, his innocence is revealed we had to wait for the film to catch up and show us where the narrative was going. With Alienoid, even if you identify a detail that gives away any particular narrative twist, the performances are so strong and the larger mystery is so interesting that all one does is feel a sense of “oh no!” as we wonder where the narrative can go from here. Choi isn’t setting up any kind of “The dead have risen” Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) shortcuts with Alienoid, the script is laying groundwork for the turns to come and the weight of those turns to be addressed in Part Two.
The details which make up the film are also incredibly delightful and clever. Take the period essence of Come Drink with Me (1966), the skilled fighting styles of Rampant (2018), and the intersection of humor and combat of Kung Fu Hustle (2004), and you’ll get something akin to Alienoid. Because audiences have had their fill of MCU properties by this point, we can accept that Guard and Thunder are synthetic beings from another planet and we can even accept their mission as alien prison guards, but it’s the combination with the Goryeo Dynasty in Korea which seems totally out of place, if one doesn’t consider the myths and legends of that era (and the films made within them). From the outset, advanced tech in the 1300s seems totally anachronistic until one considers the lead character of the past, Muruk (Ryu Jun-yeol), who’s a dosa with the ability to pull two cats from his former master’s fan and then transform them into people, called Right Paw (Shin Jung-geun and Left Paw (Lee Si-hoon). Or that two-person team masters Madam Black (Yum Jung-ah) and Mr. Blue (Jo Woo-jin) are not only skilled hand-to-hand fighters, but are also purveyors of mystical charms and objects. In light of the mysticism of the past, what occurs in the present isn’t so much out of place as a reasonable extension. At one point, in discussing how time travel works in the film, it’s noted that all time is happening simultaneously. We can dig into that another day, but to approach that philosophically, it’s as though Alienoid is presenting to the audience that the technology of the future is merely an extension of the past, making the character known as “The Girl Who Shoots Thunder” (Kim Tae-ri) less of an anachronism and more of a connected part of the dosa tradition.
Alienoid is at its strongest when focused on its characters, even during the combat sequences. Each of the actors appears equally convincing, delivering dialogue as they do when (respectively) throwing punches or casting spells. Were there no alien component, merely a time-travel aspect, all the actors would still remain as compelling and worthy of our investment. The true weakness of the film is in the heavier CG sequences. When we first see Guard’s true form at the start of the film, it’s impressive to behold in the dark of 1380 Korea. Even the smaller hints, such as points of damage in the human-presenting form or Thunder’s almost Wall-E-meets-EVE native design blend nicely with the tangible on-location moments. But when there’s a greater portion of CG work, such as a fight between Guard in his true form versus one of the aliens, the CG is somehow reduced, as though something American audiences might see on The CW in the era of Smallville (2001-2017) not a film which has the potential for blockbuster status.
One of the best indicators of how this reviewer feels about a film is the unconscious response when a screener stream shatters during a viewing. In the case of Alienoid, it was to yell “Come on!” before quickly hopping up to try to jumpstart the film back to its spot. It was only about 30 minutes into the film, but enough had happened that I’d been charmed by the Goryeo Dynasty characters (and their fluidly oscillating hilarious and serious antics) and had been thoroughly arrested with curiosity at the intrigue of the present day that I *needed* to know what was going to happen next. Such remains the case as when the giant title card dropped stating “Alienoid: Part Two coming in 2023.” Could really use a time-travel device right now so I can see how this story resolves itself. At least we have this adventure to enjoy and explore until then.
In select theaters August 26th, 2022.
For more information, head to the official Well Go USA Alienoid webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.