After almost two years where the theatrical experience felt more endangered than ever before, this past summer movie season has certainly gone a long way to reinvigorate faith that the act of witnessing exciting spectacle on the big screen was far from done with. After tentpole releases like Dune and especially Spider-Man: No Way Home started generating more than respectable numbers at the end of 2021, this year has seen a number of massive hits drawing the kind of box office results that would have been impressive even before the pandemic, with Top Gun: Maverick in particular being well on its way to cracking into the top five domestic performers of all-time. And while your opinion may vary on the quality of the individual films making buckets of money (it brings this writer no great joy to see that both Jurassic World Dominion and Minions: The Rise of Gru are also represented in the box office top five so far this year), there is something reassuring about knowing that big-budget spectacle still has a home that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon.
While it’s been true for decades that the majority of the films making big bucks in the US are ones that are attached to some form of franchise or existing IP, international markets are often quick to show us blockbusters of a different nature, the kind that spark viewers’ imagination not because of a reliance on familiar characters but because of an abundance of creativity. For a recent example, just look at the phenomenal success of RRR, one of India’s biggest smash hits ever that became a worldwide sensation largely through word-of-mouth and a devoted following attached to its stars and director. And now, South Korea (a country with no shortage of artistic and commercial successes in the past few years) has a new film that has performed so well that it dethroned both Minions: The Rise of Gru and Thor: Love and Thunder in its opening weekend by over $1 million.
The film is Alienoid, coming to us from writer/director Choi Don-hoon, best known for his 2012 heist thriller The Thieves and his 2015 conspiracy drama Assassination. For his first film in 7 years, the filmmaker has doubled down (perhaps even tripled down) on genre, crafting an epic science fiction/martial arts/time travel hybrid that spans centuries and delivers the kind of grand-scale spectacle that is every bit as impressive for its bombastic set pieces as it is for the cerebral concepts underpinning them. Anyone who’s seen one of the lesser Transformers movies will know that financial success doesn’t always (or indeed, often) translate to any kind of artistic merit, but in the case of Alienoid, the filmmakers have found that sweet spot with a story that is both wildly complex in terms of its many moving parts, yet easy to engage with moment-to-moment.
The specifics of that story do take some time to come into focus, and indeed there are some plot threads given a lot of attention whose relevance doesn’t become clear until well over halfway through. But even if it’s not always obvious how the disparate eras and characters ultimately connect with one another, they’re all entertaining enough to motivate audiences to stick around and find out. Essentially, the film takes place in two separate timelines: one, set in the present of 2022, follows a pair of robots named Guard and Thunder (both played by Kim Woo-bin) who oversee the imprisonment of a malicious alien race. The twist is that the aliens are imprisoned in human brains, making them invisible to most of the world, including to their hosts.
The other half of the story takes place 630 years earlier, during the Goryeo Dynasty, and focuses on a marginally talented magician-turned bounty hunter named Muruk (Ryu Jun-yeol) who learns of a mysterious weapon called the Divine Blade that is currently being sought by several different parties for reasons both monetary and nefarious. In his quest to obtain it, he finds himself in opposition to several rivals for the prize, including fellow sorcerers Madam Black (Yum Jung-ah) and Mr. Blue (Jo Woo-jin), as well as a mysterious girl named Ean (Kim Tae-ri) who is also known as “The Girl Who Shoots Thunder,” the specifics of which should be left for the audience to discover.
How these diverse plotlines ultimately relate to each other is something that is only gradually revealed throughout the course of the film, but beyond their significance to the story, they do provide for a fascinatingly inventive blend of subgenres. Interstellar warfare mixes with time travel paradoxes which mix with wuxia-inspired martial arts, with action sequences employing everything from unknowably futuristic tech in opposition to mystical charms and even modern handguns. Anyone who’s familiar with some of Korea’s biggest modern crossover hits (including everything from Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite and The Host to Kim Jee-woon’s The Good the Bad the Weird) will know that playing with tones and genre is nothing new in this region of the world. And while the sheer weight of everything that Alienoid is attempting to do occasionally threatens to unbalance it, Choi’s expert focus on making each individual scene the most exciting, amusing, or surreal it can be keeps the momentum humming throughout.
He is enabled by an ensemble cast that is more than game for everything that is thrown at them. Kim Woo-bin stands out as an impressive action lead who becomes more empathetic towards humanity as the film goes on, and is especially adept at playing multiple versions of himself (showcased in a scene where he’s playing a robot pretending to be another robot pretending to be a human pretending to seduce a middle-aged woman). Kim Tae-ri gives the film a welcome dose of heart as well as portraying an ass-kicking heroine that it’s easy to root for, while Ryu Jun-yeol’s hapless dosa has an endearingly can-do attitude no matter what challenges are thrown his way. In support, Yum Jung-ah and Jo Woo-jin are comedic highlights in their depiction of a pair of bumbling yet occasionally brilliant merchant sorcerers whose contributions to the finale are especially memorable. So Ji-sub also gets to show off his range as a beleaguered detective who eventually becomes the host of an especially sinister alien.
As one might expect given such a high-concept premise, the film relies fairly consistently on CGI to bring its biggest ideas across, and while the results are perhaps a bit less polished than the film’s American contemporaries, the sheer creativity used in their implementation mostly makes up for any rough edges. It must also be said that, with a runtime of 2 hours and 22 minutes, the film does feel its length at times, especially in the early going before the disconnected storylines begin to merge. It also ends on a cliffhanger that may prove especially jarring to anyone who doesn’t know that the film was shot back-to-back with a sequel that is currently scheduled for release sometime in 2023 (stick around for a mid-credits scene that teases just a little bit of what to expect).
Even with these minor shortcomings, however, Alienoid is an absolute blast to experience, and will leave audiences consistently surprised and delighted with each new twist that pulls its complicated narrative into sharper focus. Though it does require a little bit of patience to buy into, once it really gets rolling the results will prove more than worthy of the investment. It’s likely to only see a limited release in the US, at least initially, but it’s a film that lovers of popcorn entertainment should absolutely seek out and enjoy on the big screen. After all, this kind of bold, creative, slightly bonkers spectacle is a big part of what’s currently keeping cinema alive.
Alienoid is playing exclusively in theaters August 26th