Some films require patience to watch and some require energy. Writer-director Choi Dong-hoon’s Alienoid belongs to the latter camp for its hyperactivity. An ambitious mashup of multiple genres – sci-fi, fantasy, comedy, action, thriller, you name it – Choi’s sixth feature is, in a sense, a culmination of his filmography and much more. Alienoid does not brim in the metaphoric glass; it overflows by some margin and makes a bit of a mess. But that does not mean what is inside the glass does not offer a whale of a time.
The film starts by shouting “high concept,” not literally but by telling us via voiceover that an alien race has been keeping their prisoners inside living human brains for centuries without the hosts’ knowledge. It is the responsibility of Guard and Thunder (both Kim Woo-bin: Master), two robot wardens stationed on Earth, to contain these off-world offenders whenever they manage to break away from the bodies of their hosts. These breaches happen every now and then, literally. After time travelling to the 14th-century Goryeo Dynasty with the help of a crystal called the Divine Blade and neutralizing an escapee, the two robots bring with them to 2012 the infant daughter of a deceased host, setting the multistrand story on different timelines in motion.
In 1391, Mureuk (Ryu Jun-yeol: A Taxi Driver, The King), a smug Taoist monk/bounty hunter who can summon shapeshifting cats with a magic fan, chases after the Divine Blade that promises both a hefty reward and something from his past. In this pursuit, he competes with the gunslinging “Girl Who Shoots Thunder” (Kim Tae-ri: The Handmaiden) and a team of two mages, portrayed comically by Yum Jung-ah (The Mimic) and Jo Woo-jin (Kingmaker), who are hired by an enigmatic masked villain Jajang (Kim Eui-sung: Train to Busan). Meanwhile in 2022, Guard and Thunder’s secrets are uncovered by their curious and cunning “daughter” (Choi Yu-ri), who then gets involved in their fight with the Controller, the alien rebellion leader who resides in the body of a cop, Moon Do-seok (So Ji-sub: Confession).
Alienoid is hard to catch up with in the beginning but the surprisingly seamless switches between the two timelines help the audience stay on track. It is a madcap, jam-packed film where everything happens everywhere and everywhen, but not all at once for it is the first instalment in a two-part film (an important fact to know going in lest you are taken by surprise by the film’s resolution or lack thereof). Choi once again teams up with Lee Ki-cheol for the script after their previous collaborations on the wildly successful heist caper The Thieves (2012) and espionage thriller Assassination (2015). In a sense, Choi is not doing something brand new to him.
He and Lee are at home with crime, comedy, and action. Nor are fantasy and anachronistic stories unknown territories for Choi, who probed such mixture with his 2009 Jeon Woochi (which also features a shapeshifting pet and a MacGuffin). The 14th-century timeline of Alienoid benefits from heist flick elements and elicits some knee-slapping laughs, mostly thanks to Ryu Jun-yeol’s exhilarating performance. The comic duo of two mages, the gravity-defying action sequences, and the thrilling wuxia wirework bears the influence of and pays homage to Stephen Chow’s 2004 classic King Fu Hustle.
So, it is the 21st-century sci-fi-focused timeline that proves somewhat lacking. Despite the overall visual polish, the extra-terrestrial beings are portrayed mostly with subpar CGI tentacles. But a bigger problem is the general lack of freshness in this alien invasion storyline in which spectacle exceeds substance. Alienoid has enough content for more than one film, but not all of its parts are equally well-polished.
Taken together as a whole, however, it still offers an enjoyable ride. The road is bumpy at times but it helps that Choi effortlessly maintains a light tone throughout and stacks a star-studded cast that anchors the story that, to say the least, romps around. The second instalment of Alienoid was shot together with the first and is scheduled for release next year. If Choi’s reach has slightly exceeded his grasp this time around, it waits to be seen how he will go about to fulfil his ambition in the sequel.
Written by Amarsanaa Battulga
*Alienoid: Alienoid is screening at the London Korean Film Festival on 3rd Nov at the Institute of Contemporary Arts.