While American blockbusters appear to be the only movies making money at the cineplex, the quality of these films has dropped. For decades, films like Independence Day, Die Hard, and Towering Inferno were at the center of the cultural conversation. The stars balanced their charismatic and humorous performances with nuanced emotional turns. Additionally, these features were as likely to show up at The Oscars as they were at the MTV Movie Awards. For a while, the American blockbuster lifted the film industry to a dominant position in the cultural conversation.
However, sometime in the last two decades, the tone of these films shifted. American hits seemed to become overly drawn to two poles: the deadly serious, grounded film or the quippy action flick with few stakes. This is not just a superhero/Marvel problem. Movies like Free Guy, Space Jam: A New Legacy, and Peter Rabbit have only exacerbated the problem. Many of these films are embarrassed of their own premises. This has created meta-commentary films that do not skewer an art form. They seek to deflate the jokes that may come at their expense before the joke has even been made. As action films have found themselves pushed to streaming (Extraction) or ground out of the industry entirely, there have been few features to replace their loss.
However, the South Korean action/sci-fi/adventure film Alienoid promises a brighter future. Directed by Dong-hoon Choi, Alienoid follows an action ensemble, all of whom are trying to recover a legendary weapon. The story takes place out of space or time, in a universe where all time occurs simultaneously. Alien outlaws are captured and imprisoned within the bodies of humans, but some have found their way out of their containment. As the aliens seek to obtain the weapon, humans from thousands of years apart work with supernatural beings to protect their reality.
Most of the film comes in two distinct periods, which allows Dong-hoon to stretch his filmmaking talents. The A-plot focuses on Guard (Kim Woo-bin) & Thunder (Kim Dae-Myung) as they attempt to raise a young girl (Choi Yu-Ri). Meanwhile, in the 14th century, Mureuk (Ryu Jun-Yeol) attempts to fight off the unusual tentacled creatures that begin attacking humans. Mureuk finds allies in Lee Ahn (Kim Tae-ri), a pair of human-transforming cats (Lee Si-hoon & Shin Jung-geun), and two gurus (Jo Woo-jin & Yum Jung-ah).
The turn toward comedy helps Alienoid stand out from global cinematic blockbusters. It genuinely inspires laughs, both through physical comedy and wordplay. So many jokes feel more at home in Talledega Nights or Jim Carrey comedies. Instead, they are juxtaposed against high-concept science fiction sequences featuring wholly unique beings. Being willing to engage in the humorous circumstances its characters find themselves in helps Alienoid connect us to our heroes’ wacky, more klutzy side. Their imperfections are seemingly celebrated, giving them a sincerity missing from American films of this ilk.
Two performances stand out above the cast, namely those of Kim Woo-bin and Ryu Jun-Yeol. Characters like Thunder and Guard shapeshift into robotic creatures, allowing Kim to portray multiple versions of Guard. This allows him to play to the high fantastical concepts while becoming a reliable source for comedy. As he plays a physical version of Guard, being impersonated by Thunder, he can embrace slapstick energy we rarely see on screen anymore. Simultaneously, his complete robotic android form recalls the excitement of watching Iron Man or a Transformer do battle.
Just as impressive, Ryu gets to showcase Wuxia wire-fu. The storytelling embraces the fantasy of this era, making the 14th century more focused on magic and myths, as opposed to modern-day sci-fi. With his effect-laden choreography allowing him to literally soar, he too can engage in a Drunken Master tone throughout much of his screen time.
The tonal balance to make the science fiction, historical Wuxia fantasy, and legitimate comedy becomes Choi Dong-hoon’s most impressive feat. While the visual effects occasionally falter, Choi builds the unique story brick-by-brick. Laying the foundation in the way he does, opens the door for more significant reveals later in the film. Additionally, Alienoid appears to be the first of a two-part saga. The ideas and concepts threaded through this film do enough world-building to set up the audience for an exciting sequel.
While Alienoid may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it provides enough action and comedy to stand out. Drawing on traditional East Asian styles and then transposing them across the centuries. With fun performances and well-drawn characters, Alienoid should become one of the more exciting foreign blockbusters of the year.