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The Best Korean Alien/Wuxia/Time Travel Film You Are Likely To See This Week
Not great, but unexpected.
To call Choi Dong-hoon’s Korean hit Alienoid a mess is to insult the structural integrity of messes. To say it is poorly conceived is to cast aspersions on poverty, and also on concepts. This is an incoherent trainwreck of a movie for those who find trainwrecks overly coherent. It is a blaring farrago of nonsense for those who resent the iota of sense in their usual blaring farrago stew.
This is, in short, a very, very, very silly movie.
But is it bad?
Well it’s not, by any rigorous critical standard, good. Even grading on a curve for big dumb action movies, it is a stretch to say it is good.
But if you set aside the usual metrics like plot, character, theme, and visual style there is a core of broken goofball spectacle writhing and flopping in what passes for the film’s neural system that I, at least, found pretty appealing.
Aliens vs. Wizards vs. Poison vs. ???
The story, if that’s what you want to call it, starts in…where? I know I watched the beginning of the movie, but I really can’t for the life of me remember what happened way back then, before the explosions and the cat reaction shots and the giant bullets? And the CGI tentacles—so, so many CGI tentacles….
Ahem. Anyway. So, there are aliens, and they imprison bad mutant aliens in human brains. There is a robot, named Guard, played by runway model Kim Woo-bin, whose job is to, well, guard the earth and make sure the evil mutant aliens don’t escape from human brains.
Also to implant more aliens in human brains as necessary. Morally dubious? Yes! But they don’t dwell on that, so neither should we.
Guard is aided by an AI jeep which can also take the form of a cute floating drone or sometimes the form of Guard, though wearing cooler clothes, usually.
Guard and Thunder time travel to the past where an alien has broken out of a human. The human dies (that’s what happens when the alien breaks free) but she’s got an infant daughter, Lee Ahn. Guard and Thunder take her to the present with them where she grows up to be a spunky elementary school kid (Choi Yu-ri) and gets into hi-jinks.
But! An evil alien ship appears and wakens evil aliens from humans by blowing alien atmosphere into the earth, killing a lot of people in the process. Guard fights the good fight but eventually the tactic is to go back into the past again? Where there’s an extended search over a decade for a magic glowing dagger?
That search, unexpectedly, is led by a sometimes competent, sometimes slapstick wizard named Muruk (Ryu Jun-yeol) who has a magic fan which summons cats which turn into humans named Right Paw and Left Paw?
Also Lee Ahn grows up (Kim Tae-ri) and now has a gun, which is useful in the 14th century.
Also! (Deep! Breath!)
What Is Happening Help
So, there is actually a lot more plot but sometimes you have to stop and say, that is enough plot. You are trying to get me to go through all the plot and explain the tentacle possession and the bizarre romantic subplot and the magic mirror that makes your hands get big. And I’m drawing a line. No. You can’t make me.
As for the narrative, so for the genres. There are a lot of genres. A lot. Wuxia trips and lands face first in body horror, which roars and splatters all over science-fiction, which has obviously seen five or twelve too many MCU films. There’s action comedy too, shaken over everything the way a chef does when he knows the meal has just really not come out right and salt is his only hope.
There’s a danger that describing it in this way will make it sound better than it is. Two hours twenty minutes is a long time for a movie to chase its own tentacles, especially when you realize that this is only part one, with a second presumably equally loud and pointless sequel coming in 2023.
Still, the bizarre-i-tude is real. I wouldn’t say that it deserves to top the Korean box office the way it did, exactly. But if you’re going to sit your butt down to watch some loud blaring action movie, it might as well be a loud blaring action movie where the guy with the magic cats fights the alien with tentacles and you’ve got swords and lasers and mirrors with giant hands coming out of them and the cartoonish CGI is dropped unaplogetically into a magic flute fight.
The Avengers: Nope
MCU films are an obvious influence here. But for all its patented over-stuffed mix of myth and science and magic, Marvel is too wedded to continuity and standard empowerment fantasy narrative construction to ever come up with something as genuinely odd as Alienoid.
Choi Dong-Hoon doesn’t exactly have anything to say. He doesn’t exactly say it well. But you never know the next thing that’s going to come out of his brain.
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