Review by Daniel Lima
The first Alienoid film was a raucous mess of historical martial arts fantasy and modern science fiction action. The bouncing between timelines, the amount of depth in its worldbuilding, and the vast number of characters make for an incredibly ambitious high-concept blockbuster that, as fun as it is, becomes absolutely overwhelming. Almost two years later, Alienoid: Return to the Future picks up right where the last one ends, with a far more streamlined plot and comparatively little time spent recapping the story so far. The result is an engaging, madcap genre pile-up that is a satisfying conclusion to one of the most unique projects of the decade.
Wisely, this does not linger so much on reminding the audience of what happened in the first film, as a thorough explanation would be as long and difficult to follow as the film itself. Essentially, a pair of sentient AIs serving as jailers of alien criminals attempted to stop a dangerous convict from terraforming the Earth into a habitat for its species. Chasing it from modern Seoul to late 14th century Korea, the duo ended up inadvertently recruiting numerous people to the cause: a young girl thrust into their care, a variety of sorcerers, a modern customs officer, and a pair of men who are also cats. The sequel begins with a simple goal: find the energy source that will take our heroes back to the future and end the villainous plot.
I cannot overstate how much that summary leaves out.
Considering the breadth of the story and how nonsensical it all was to begin with, spending only the first couple of minutes refreshing the audience’s memory is a wise decision. Though it never becomes easy to separate what we should know from the original and what we’re learning now (the two movies were shot simultaneously), it quickly becomes simple enough to understand the web of character relationships through context. Unburdened by the need to set up the world all over again, the narrative is free to move quickly, burning through a mountain of story at a pace that laps the lethargic predecessor.
It helps that most of the runtime is spent in the past. One of the most exhilarating elements of Alienoid is how it incorporates futuristic technology — from alien superweapons to a 9mm Glock — into the fantastic Joseon period setting, marrying these with Daoist magicians and high-flying wirework perfectly at home in classic wuxia (or its Korean equivalent, Muhyeop). There is an undeniable thrill to watching someone leap through the air, firing a semiautomatic pistol at an alien creature in an ornately decorated pre-modern inn.
Return to the Future continues to deliver stellar action, particularly since this one spends far less time on weightless CG-driven set pieces. Every battle has a tactile quality, with characters moving through the space, tearing it apart, and using every tool at their disposal in exciting ways. When effects are used, they are rooted in reality, shown to have an actual physical impact on the world around them, and shot with such deliberate intention that it’s clear that the director had a real vision of how the scene would ultimately look, not leaving it up to others to piece together in post. From classic martial arts brawls with a sci-fi twist to a train fight that mixes magic and technology with wild abandon, this is the kind of filmmaking that makes the most of every tool at its disposal.
The one area in which the film comes up a bit short is emotion. This doesn’t feel like a movie about anything in particular, lacking a clear animating idea beyond sheer spectacle. In part one, that, combined with the vast ensemble of characters, made it feel unfocused, with many scenes feeling like pure filler. That the comedy was very broad — and one can imagine much of it untranslatable — certainly made these moments less tolerable.
While Return to the Future fails to find the heart of this story, the more concise narrative means that the protagonists are forced to be more proactive, making them far more interesting to follow. Without the constant exposition dumps elucidating the premise, the cast is given more room to find the humanity within their performances, and they are all charming and delightful heroes. The villains don’t get as much to do here, but when in human guise, they are suitably intimidating. If this cast wasn’t as lively as they were, it might be easy to mentally check out, but by the climax, you just can’t help but hope for a happy ending for everyone.
It’s always surprising to find a sequel superior to the original, especially when they were a product of the same production. Yet such is the case with Alienoid: Return to the Future; unencumbered by the bloat of the first part, this finale is allowed to revel in the thrilling possibilities that this genre mash-up allows. Honestly, this movie is so much fun it had me wondering if the first deserves a reevaluation. Anything to spend more time in this world.
Alienoid: Return to the Future is now in theaters.