Big, blockbuster cinema is thought of by many as belonging solely to Hollywood studios and recognizable franchises, but filmmakers around the world have proved that theory wrong again and again. This year alone has already seen the wild success of India’s spectacular RRR, and now South Korea is jumping into the arena with Alienoid. It’s a big, dense, high-energy blend of action, sci-fi, and comedy with half its running time set in the 14th century. It moves fast, even at over two hours long, and it’s guaranteed to leave you ready for the sequel due next year.
You don’t expect to see an SUV barreling through shacks during Korea’s Goryeo Dynasty in the year 1391, but things only get wilder from there. It seems an intergalactic war between species beyond our imagination has resulted in prisoners being secured inside human bodies. The humans don’t know and go on living their lives, but when they die the alien prisoner does too. A synthetic humanoid named Guard (Kim Woo-bin) and his transforming sidekick Thunder (also Kim in human form, but otherwise voiced by Kim Dae-myung) are stationed on Earth and tasked with overseeing new prisoner drop offs and preventing escapes. The pair can travel through time using a magical dagger, and a trip from the present to the 14th century sees them return with an infant otherwise left for dead — a choice that kicks off the action both now and then.
Writer/director Choi Dong-hoon is comfortably at home with big, fast-moving tales populated by fun, shifty characters, and Alienoid is no different — aside from being his biggest film yet. Humor plays a big role in nearly all of his films (Tazza: The High Rollers, 2006; Woochi: The Demon Slayer, 2009; The Thieves, 2012), so it’s no surprise that his latest delivers some big laughs along the way. Fans of 2015’s excellent and more serious Assassination won’t be disappointed, though, as its strong ensemble, fantastic action, and intricate structure are equally present here.
The film moves between the two periods with two seemingly different story threads, but all of it is destined to tie together. Guard and Thunder are dealing with a messy prisoner drop off in the present, one that catches the attention of their now pre-teen “daughter” Ean (Choi Yu-ri), and that leads to explosive carnage through the city streets. The story unfolding six centuries earlier (simultaneously?) sees a magical bounty hunter named Muruk (Ryu Jun-yeol) searching for the Divine Blade, but he’s not the only one. He’s joined by a pair of cats who live in a hand fan and turn into humans (don’t ask) and competing with several others. One is a vicious, masked madman named Jajang (Kim Eui-sung), there’s a pair of magically mischievous inventors called Madam Black (Yum Jung-ah) and Mr. Blue (Jo Woo-jin), and then there’s a young woman known only as The Girl Who Shoots Thunder (Kim Tae-ri) — because she’s carrying a semi-automatic pistol.
There’s a lot to digest in Alienoid, obviously, but thankfully it’s made easier for viewers in two ways. First, the numerous plot specifics and relationships are less important than what you’ll intuitively pick up about it all. And second, Choi excels at juggling the characters, story details, and dramatic beats in highly entertaining ways. It’s just a fun time watching the characters interact and banter before, during, and after the film’s multitude of action sequences.
To that point, while laughs and action spill through both time periods, each has a different priority with varied success. The present is filled with more and bigger set-pieces as alien crafts dogfight over city streets causing massive damage to surrounding buildings. Fighting continues on the ground as Guard faces off against the alien visitor intent on freeing a specific prisoner, and it comes alive through gun play, fisticuffs, and a Marvel film’s worth of CG. It’s all solid enough, but Guard’s flat affect and the abundance of CG makes it harder for viewers to grow attached on the character front.
There’s no such problem with Alienoid‘s 14th century scenes, though. The action is a mix of more grounded fights and wuxia-inspired, gravity defying antics, all of which thrill. But it’s here where Choi’s eye and ear for comedy and personality absolutely shine. Ryu is incredibly charismatic and very funny as the amateur but highly talented dosa (magician) who stumbles into the plot unintentionally. From his physical mannerisms to his line delivery he’s the comic center of the film. Close behind him, though, is the Black & Blue pairing — siblings? romantic couple? business partners? — who steal every one of their scenes whether they’re hawking magical inventions like Hoyt Axton in Gremlins or using their mystical chops in combat.
If there’s a bigger sense of disjointedness in Alienoid it’s in the film’s cliffhanger ending. It’s by design, and the sequel is already in post-production with a release scheduled for next year, but it still leaves the narrative incomplete in a very direct way. That said, there’s no doubting you’ll be satisfied spending both your money and time watching this one. It’s big, fun world-building with action that excites, laughs that land, a score that compels, and characters you care about. Most Hollywood blockbusters should be so lucky.