Alienoid Is a Bizarre Hodge-Podge of Genres That Gets Lost in Itself

When I first was introduced to the South Korean sci-fi action flick Alienoid, I expected a story set in the future, one full of robots, aliens, neon-colored cities, and sleek futuristic hovercraft. Of course, it doesn’t take long for you to realize that this is not what Alienoid is. In fact, it’s rather difficult to put together what genre the movie really fits into, what kind of tone it’s going for, or even what the plot is at times. Directed by Choi Dong-hoon, who saw commercial success with the caper The Thieves and period film Assassination, Alienoid boasts beautiful costumes, talent the likes of Kim Woo-bin and Kim Tae-ri, and splashy special effects.

But what Alienoid is defies categorization. Is it a comedy? Is it drama? Is it action? Is it science-fiction? Is it fantasy? It is all of these things and more and that’s the inherent problem. Immensely uneven in tone, serious scenes are intercut with slapstick humor to the point where it’s difficult to discern sometimes if what you’re watching is meant to make you laugh or not. On top of that, this is a story that is crammed full of plot lines. Not only is there a story set in the 14th century during the Goryeo Dynasty, but with the added confusion of time travel we also get a story in present day. Each of these settings has its own host of characters that initially have no tie to each other. For about half of the movie it feels like you’re simultaneously watching two films.

Alienoid follows Guard (Kim Woo-bin) and his robot sidekick Thunder (Kim Dae-myung, who sometimes can shapeshift himself to look like Guard) as they manage alien prisoners on Earth. The prisoners on their planet do not get placed in physical jails but are imprisoned in the bodies of humans. With the ability to jump through time, the two place prisoners in the bodies of unwitting humans across time. The beginning of the film puts us in the 14th century chasing down an escapee. Taking care of the prisoner, Guard and Thunder return to the 21st-century return with a baby girl. This girl, named Lee Ahn (Choi Yu-ri/Kim Tae-ri), eventually grows up under the care of Guard and Thunder.

At the heart of this story is Ahn and Guard. The scenes featuring Guard and the young Ahn are actually some of the most entertaining moments of the movie. The plot is perfectly digestible, and it plays on the tried-and-true formula of the reluctant dad and adopted child trope that proves to always be successful. Though Guard is distant with Ahn and reiterates that he doesn’t care about humans, the two form a bond. Thunder, who is far more sympathetic to Ahn, acts more like her companion, though he can also shapeshift into the body of Guard. Believe it or not, this is the most coherent part of the film.

Where it flies off the rails is when we jump back to the 14th century, and now we follow Mureuk (Ryu Jun-yeol) who is a sort of wandering adventurer and wizard. He has a magical fan that allows him to pull things out in battle like a sword and a pair of kittens that can transform into human sidekicks. Mureuk is searching for a legendary dagger said to be incredibly valuable. On this search, he comes across a mysterious person who is known only as the woman who shoots thunder. The two have a comical romance with each other based partly on deception and their pursuit of the dagger. Again, this is a part of the movie that actually works pretty well. The chemistry and humorous scenario proves to be entertaining when it’s not getting lost in the vastness of the landscape of the film.

This isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy sci-fi or fantasy, or even stories that successfully meld the two genres into something more exciting, in fact, there are glimmers of hope for Alienoid. The way it weaves timelines together is not exactly completely new territory, but it is still effective. The idea of aliens storing their prisoners in humans also works, especially as Guard reveals more about his home planet and why his people decided to adopt this method. The young and precocious Ahn is the perfect audience stand-in to question him. And it’s not that the comedy of the plot set in the 14th century doesn’t work, at points the humor is reminiscent of something from the portfolio of Stephen Chow.

But Alienoid is a movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be. When it actually nestles itself into a genre it’s a fun romp, but before you can get your bearings you’re thrown into another story. It actually helps that you can see the twist coming miles away because it helps you put the pieces of disparate elements together. It is very clear that Choi was swinging for the fences with this one, and the ending of the film leaves ample room for future installments (in fact the Korean title has a subtitle saying it is Part 1). You can distinctly see in the action sequences that he is trying to imitate Hollywood blockbusters like The Avengers – something that Choi admitted to press during a screening that he wished to emulate. But sometimes you swing, and you knock the ball out of the park, and sometimes the other team catches the ball, and you’re out. With a budget of about 33 billion won, equal to about 25.3 million dollars, the visual quality of the movie is there, but that doesn’t mean it’s a home run.

Time will tell if Part 2 is a more satisfying conclusion and ties together many of the loose threads in the story, but for now, Alienoid is a movie that wants to be everything and satisfy everyone, and when you try to satisfy everyone, you invariably end up satisfying no one.

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