From the beginning, the new-to-Netflix movie from Train to Busan and Peninsula writer-director Yeon Sang-ho is reminiscent of other sci-fi films, as are many genre films. For the American audience, at least, the opening sequence and sometimes inside JUNG_E he will remember movies like this Alita: Angel of War, Elysiumand some pictures of Neill Blomkamp, together The Phantom Menacelater-term Terminator series like Salvationand Alex Proyas version of I, Robot.
It’s not that these seeming honors represent a unique, relatively large set of sci-fi subjects. Alita good and Phantom Menace is appreciated, whereas Terminator: Salvation it’s completely random fun. All in all, these movies may not be the ones that really inspired Yeon: She is from South Korea and started her career as a rapper, so she may have other influences in mind. But today’s sci-fi movies are quick to pull from other sources – Blade Runneroriginal Star Warsand Alien – that any film that even inspires a different line is attention-grabbing.
JUNG_E it’s also gripping because it opens with a crackerjack action sequence, as mercenary Yun Jung-yi (Kim Hyun-joo) fights her way through a horde of robot soldiers on a bluish junkscape. As the scene begins to look more like a video game, the movie seems to anticipate this idea, and pulls back to show that its heroine is taking the right place. The real Jung-yi is in a coma following a major battle. Now, scientists working for a large corporation are putting AI-created versions of themselves through that same battle, hoping that one version will figure out how to survive — and become the great warrior needed to win the civil war.
There’s a lot to pass up, right from the top: The movie is set in the late 22nd century. Earth is uninhabitable, so humans moved into space, where they split into two factions in an almost endless conflict. The film, mainly set in and around the lab facilities, only shows scenes of war. The main researcher on the AI project is Yun Seo-hyun (Kang Soo-youn), whose clever lips deny the fact that she is Jung-yi’s daughter. His character is in stark contrast to the silly, sometimes goofy Sang-hoon (Ryu Kyung-soo), the team leader who focused more on money, pleasing his company employees, and, as he says, “showing off.”
JUNG_E it opens with an interesting battle scene, and closes with a bigger, better action sequence, with slightly cartoonish but effective (and when necessary, appropriately heavy) visuals. But it’s not a real movie. In the time between violent scenes, it goes through a lot of world-building, fantasy play, and other plot twists that deliberately lower the audience’s expectations about where the story might logically go.
Knowing about the plot of the movie before it arrives can spoil one’s sense of discovery in an unexpected movie. On the other hand, a few patient viewers could be forgiven for thinking, around the halfway point, that Yeon wandered off and lost the pace. Sometimes it’s frustrating when the story cuts away from Jung-yi; whether in human form in flashbacks or robotic in the present, he is the film’s most interesting character, while his grown-up daughter Seo-hyun is, by design, a little quicker to talk. Kang takes his time to bring out the emotions in Seo-hyun.
Sadly, this is Kang’s unexpected farewell performance. The actor, a star in Korea for several decades, died after finishing the film. The concept of loss is very relevant to those things, which consider how the simulation of the human brain creates its own life, and what that kind of extra life can mean for some traditional ways of knowing. Although it has moments of humor, JUNG_E’the pangs of sadness grow throughout the film as it continues.
By the time it spins back to a more interesting conclusion, the movie feels like mixed reality, rather than a case of tonal whiplash. When the movie shows a bunch of robots with normal human faces, they don’t just look like the robot designs from 2004. I, Robot; it seems that Yeon has acted strangely, his friend to the movie is messed up, among others. JUNG_E it has a lot of spare parts, and sometimes janky green-screen effects. But both the robots and the people they collect move with unexpected grace.
JUNG_E is streaming on Netflix now.