Director: Choi Dong-hun
Cast: Ryoo Joon-Yeol, Kim Woo-Bin, Kim Tae-Ri, Lee Ha-Nee, Yum Jung-Ah, Jo Woo-Jin, Kim Eui-Sung, Jin Sun-Kyu, Wi Ji-woong, Lee Si-hoon
Running Time: 123 min.
By Paul Bramhall
Korea’s premier blockbuster director Choi Dong-hoon returned with a bang in 2022 with Alienoid, a time travelling sci-fi genre mash-up that threw in everything from Shaw Brothers references to a John Woo homage. Shot as a 2-parter, the second instalment arrived on screens at the beginning of 2024 under the title Alienoid: Return to the Future, and picks up directly where the first one left off. After the alien criminals successfully released their planet’s atmosphere into a section of downtown Seoul, turning the air deadly for any humans in the vicinity, they push ahead with their plan to turn the entire planet (or at least all of Korea) into their new home. With less than an hour before the rest of their atmosphere is released, the beaten and battered cyborg played by Kim Woo-bin orders his floating robot companion Thunder and adopted daughter to hightail it 700 years into the past, hoping to avert the disaster before it happens.
All of this is recapped during the opening credits, allowing the narrative to hit the ground running as we re-join the double handgun wielding Kim Tae-ri (Space Sweepers, The Handmaiden) in her mission to seek out the divine dagger in the past. At (and in) the same time sorcerers Jo Woo-jin (Seobok, Steel Rain) and Yum Jung-ah (Another Child, The Mimic) are helping their trainee Ryu Jun-yeol (Believer, Heart Blackened) recuperate from the coma he fell into, following the bombshell revelation at the end of part 1. Upon watching A:RttF (as I’ll refer to it from here on in), it became increasingly clear there are both pros and cons to filming such an epic 2-part story back-to-back. The main pro being the cohesiveness the plot maintains, but the unexpected con being that I got the distinct impression Dong-hoon may not have known where to finish part 1 and start part 2 until he was in the editing suite.
While the cliff-hanger that Alienoid ends on was the perfect finale in the context of being a standalone movie, the revelations that came to light don’t feel all that significant in part 2, and while they’re sufficiently addressed, the dramatic build-up around them felt like it was missing in action. In fairness, every review only offers up an opinion of the time the reviewer watched the movie in question, and if both Alienoid and A:RttF were watched back-to-back, then the anticipation of waiting over a year may result in it being a non-issue. However it’s difficult to deny that, even with 20 minutes shaved off the runtime (A:RttF clocks in pretty much bang on 2 hours), Dong-hoon only shifts into 5th gear in the latter half.
The first hour maintains the same narrative pace as the original if not really elevating it, feeling like a missed opportunity considering the ticking clock plot device which A:RttF is framed around. The cut-off point between parts 1 and 2 also serve to make Lee Hanee (Fabricated City, Tazza: The Hidden Card) a more central character, compared to being little more than a doting aunt with a crush on Kim Woo-bin last time, but the result is that the sudden focus on her role doesn’t feel entirely earned. Likewise the absence or reduced screen time of others proves detrimental, with Kim Woo-bin being the most obvious case, who after essentially being the main character and heart of Alienoid, is here limited to a supporting role as the humanoid version of Thunder.
The biggest crime though is the absence of So Ji-sub, who was the highlight of the original as a police officer who falls under the control of the aliens, turning him into the suitably menacing villain of the piece. Here he’s seen in brief flashbacks, but is otherwise absent from the plot altogether, leaving the heavy lifting to CGI as the aliens show themselves in all their tentacled glory. Of course any movie with Alienoid in its title needs to deliver on its promise of showing some aliens, but watching their prominent presence in A:RttF, I couldn’t help but feel that my comment from watching the original has come back to bite me.
In my review I mentioned “If any criticism could be pointed…then it’s that the design of the aliens themselves isn’t particularly creative. These are the fairly standard design grey bodied lanky figures…and similarly their human hosts ability to spurt tentacles out of their back feels a little too clean and unimaginative compared to what could have been done.” In short, nothing has changed with A:RttF, and in 2024 I’m kind of over Korea’s obsession with CGI tentacled monsters/aliens/creatures. I think they can be traced back to 2011’s monster on an oil rig flick Sector 7, and most recently turned up again in the 2023 Netflix series Gyeongseong Creature. Please stop with the CGI tentacles already. Whereas the likes of So Ji-sub and Kim Eui-sung (Special Delivery, Rampant) used their screen presence and natural charisma to convey an other worldly threat, the real (well, CGI) aliens pale in comparison.
The issue isn’t with the CGI itself, which is of a high quality (save for when it’s used for one of my pet hates – a car crash), but more in the design of the aliens themselves, which feels a little too indistinct, especially the main threat which sees 2 of them combine in one body and still manages to feel cookie cutter. Despite these gripes though, which admittedly add up to a fair few, for the most part A:RttF entertains, with Kim Tae-ri and Ryu Jun-yeol pushed to the fore as leads making a likeable pair who are easy to root for. To his credit Dong-hoon doesn’t only rest on the twist involving the pair that closed out part 1 to propel the plot forward, delivering another that effectively turns on its head what we thought we knew, resulting in the plot going in an unexpected direction which is when A:RttF is at its most engaging.
The other characters who receive more screen time than the first outing are the sorcerers played by Jo Woo-jin and Yum Jung-ah, with both once more getting to flex their Taoist styled magic, this time not only in the past but also in present day. If there was such a thing as a Choi Dong-hoon universe, I’d happily pay to watch a movie in which they team up with Jeon Woo Chi, the Taoist wizard played by Gang Dong-won whose name also served as the title for Dong-hoon’s 2009 fantasy comedy. Their antics are frequently played for laughs (although the anticipation of a comedic scene setup to involve a treadmill tragically turned out to be funnier than the execution of the scene itself), and any fan of old-school fantasy wuxia movies will find it impossible not to smile when Jung-ah uses a magic mirror to make her fist 100 times bigger.
Speaking of the action, Dong-hoon strikes a healthy balance between the practical and the CGI. I enjoyed the fact that the scenes which take place in the past were filmed on constructed sets rather than greenscreen, meaning that when an action scene does break out, characters were frequently thrown through walls or tables in a way that wouldn’t be out of place in an early 90’s new wave wuxia from Hong Kong. Throw in blind swordsmen that use zen like powers to make their sword fly through the air like a deadly boomerang, multi-person generating talismans, and an oversized blade that looks like it came straight out of a videogame, and even when the action gives way to the CGI driven finale it’s still a lot of fun.
While the time travel infused plot and characters remain the same in Alienoid: Return to the Future, the same energy and genre mixing that made Alienoid so enjoyable isn’t quite there in the follow-up, making it feel more like your average commercial blockbuster. That’s not necessarily a criticism, and I’ll be curious to find out once some time has passed and I re-watch both back-to-back if I’ll appreciate the flow of Dong-hoon’s 460-minute epic, or that it could have perhaps been told in a single movie rather than 2. For now though, in a blockbuster landscape that’s still overstuffed with endless superhero movies, the fact that he’s given us one that involves sorcerers from 700 years in the past battling aliens in present day Seoul is to be admired. As one of Korea’s most enduring commercial filmmakers, here’s hoping this won’t be the last time we see Dong-hoon sitting in the director’s chair.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 6.5/10