Often spinning multiple genre influences at once, it’s hard to dismiss Choi Dong-hoon’s Alienoid when its ambition is so out there. A hybrid of martial arts, science fiction, and fantasy, it’s a movie brimming with creativity and inspired moments of action that takes its initial concept and excitedly runs with it. However, with two separate narrative threads that are clunkily juxtaposed against each other more often than they are intertwined, Alienoid also suffers from a case of uneven pacing and a long set-up to multiple endings that still leave the film hanging for its sequel (that has already been filmed).
The initial hook is captivating enough though that science fiction junkies will instantly wish to see how Choi’s inspired plot plays out. Taking place across two separate time periods – late 14th century Goryeo and modern day Korea – Alienoid centers itself around the notion that aliens have been imprisoning their prisoners in human bodies as opposed to killing them off. A form of captivity with an expiration date since the aliens can’t survive outside of a human body for long in the Earth’s atmosphere and are clueless about their imprisonment, it serves as a means of dealing with criminals without having to really deal with them. Obviously, the humans are unaware of this, but occasionally the aliens imprisoned can become conscious of the vessel and attempt to escape.
It’s an impressive conceit that Choi doesn’t play enough with the ethics and morality for it to exist beyond being “cool”. Which is okay, but Alienoid occasionally skirts around the deeper implications of considering other species expendable. After capturing one of the escaped prisoners, Guard (Kim Woo-bin) and his robot companion Thunder (voiced by Kim Dae-myung but frequently taking the form of Guard), end up saving a baby from the past and bringing her with them to their hideout in the modern day. Lee Ahn (Choi Yu-ri) grows up with Guard as her father but is very aware that something is off and questions the validity of their relationship.
Meanwhile, the fact that the aliens move between time periods allows for Alienoid to shift its narrative focus back in time to 1392, where a mysterious artifact called the Divine Blade is pursued by multiple parties, including Mureuk (Ryu Jun-yeol) – a swordsman and Taoist. Able to leap to great heights and command the elements, this leads to action scenes in the past leaning more towards mysticism and martial arts than the hard science fiction of the modern timeline. However, Choi wisely doesn’t section off these time periods from one another and very quickly introduces neat twists like modern weaponry and costume design thanks to the aliens and their time-hopping ways. This leads to engaging set pieces, specifically closer to the end of the film, but also seamlessly brings the two timelines together.
Unfortunately, Alienoid often loses momentum when it shifts from one storyline to the other. There are occasionally handoffs between the two where one plot point that can be elaborated on is done so in another period of time, but more often than not it is at the cost of more interesting ideas being shunned for the plot itself. There’s no real depth to anything Choi is doing, which is a travesty when it seems like it wants to do so much more. Despite small connective tissue between the past and present, Alienoid keeps everything feeling slightly disconnected for long periods of time. Eventually, it does come together in a relatively ingenious manner, but by the time it makes that connection it’s jumped back and forth too much and broken up the momentum.
The selling point of Alienoid is its action, something which Choi has always been dependable for even when his films seem to be more centered around style and narrative. Here he’s got alien technology and ancient weaponry combined with magic and good old-fashioned brawls at his disposal for some truly inventive situations. It doesn’t always feel like everything is being taken advantage of to its fullest potential, but those moments when it does lean into the variety available it feels refreshing. The final action sequence, a spaceship chase, and a fun elevator scuffle give Alienoid a kitchen-sink approach to its action that never takes away from moving the plot forward.
Visual effects in a movie like this would also typically be a cause for concern since it’s largely dependent on CG, but while anything digital does have a sheen on it that’s easy to spot, it’s not jarring or ever feels out of place. Specifically, anything futuristic, or even the tentacles that stretch out from aliens, ends up looking exactly as it should. It helps to give a nice gloss to the alien technology, though it stretches out to more fantastical elements as well that end up being a bit more outlandish looking.
Alienoid’s biggest flaw is that it just doesn’t have a great understanding of pacing. Whereas Choi’s previous movies have had little issues in this regard, here the plot always feels like it’s being stalled when it hands itself over to another time period and it isn’t until after the movie first feels like it’s coming to an end that it goes on for an extended period of time that actually moves more fluidly. The final act is far smoother than everything preceding it, but it almost feels like the film should not have cut back and forth between two different timelines and instead did a transition when it made sense to do so. It makes sense because of the aliens and their ability to move between eras, but the film itself suffers from not making those transitions more organic.
As it stumbles every now and then, Alienoid still manages to come to an exciting close even though it’s also one that sets up for an already in-development sequel. Choi’s laid a fertile foundation here for a science fiction and fantasy mash-up with heady ideas and fun setpieces, but it feels more preoccupied with a mystical object and a generic story of someone saving the world than the exploitation of human life and a galaxy that sees humans as expendable – two ideas that Choi includes in his text but never touches on again. It’s a compelling film on paper, but Alienoid rarely brings its disparate parts together as cleanly as it needs.