Right from the start, the new-to-Netflix movie from Train to Busan and Peninsula writer-director Yeon Sang-ho brings to mind other sci-fi films, as so many genre movies do. For American audiences, at least, the opening sequences and other moments in JUNG_E will recall movies like Alita: Battle Angel, Elysium, and other Neill Blomkamp pictures, along with The Phantom Menace, later-period Terminator sequels like Salvation, and the Alex Proyas version of I, Robot.
It’s not that these seeming homages represent a stunningly curated, uniformly great set of sci-fi classics. Alita is terrific and Phantom Menace is underappreciated, while Terminator: Salvation is interestingly misbegotten at best. Collectively, these films may not even be what actually inspired Yeon: He’s from South Korea and he began his career in animation, so he may well have a whole other set of influences in mind. But modern sci-fi movies are so quick to pull from the same sources — Blade Runner, the original Star Wars, and Alien — that any film even suggesting a different lineage is an attention-grabber.
JUNG_E is also grabby because it starts off with a crackerjack action sequence, as mercenary Yun Jung-yi (Kim Hyun-joo) fights her way through a bunch of robot soldiers on a bluish junkscape. As the scene starts to look increasingly video game-like, the movie seems to anticipate this thought, and pulls back to show that its heroine is occupying a virtual space. The real Jung-yi is in a coma following a major battle. Now, scientists working for a large corporation are putting AI-cloned versions of her through that same battle, hoping some version will figure out how to survive it — and become the great warrior needed to win the ongoing civil war.
There’s a lot of lore to get through, right from the top: The movie is set at the end of the 22nd century. Earth is uninhabitable, so humanity has moved to space, where they’ve split into two factions engaged in a seemingly infinite armed conflict. The film, mostly set in and around lab facilities, only shows virtual glimpses of the war. The chief researcher on the AI project is Yun Seo-hyun (Kang Soo-youn), whose tight-lipped professionalism belies the fact that she’s also Jung-yi’s daughter. Her taciturnity contrasts substantially with the manic, sometimes goofy Sang-hoon (Ryu Kyung-soo), a team leader focused more on money, pleasing his corporate bosses, and, as he puts it, “showmanship.”
JUNG_E opens with that exciting battle scene, and closes with a bigger, better action sequence, with slightly cartoony but effective (and when needed, appropriately weighty) visual effects. Yet it’s not exactly an action movie. In the long stretch between instances of mayhem, it goes through a lot of world-building, contemplative drama, and some plot twists that intentionally undermine both the characters’ and the audience’s expectations about where the story might logically be headed.
Knowing about the movie’s odd structure in advance might spoil some sense of discovery in an admirably unpredictable movie. On the other hand, less patient viewers might be forgiven for assuming, around the halfway mark, that Yeon has wandered too far afield and lost his momentum. Sometimes it’s frustrating when the story cuts away from Jung-yi; whether in human form in flashbacks or robot form in the present, she’s the movie’s most charismatic character, while her grown daughter Seo-hyun is, by design, less immediately expressive. Kang takes her time to bring out the emotion in Seo-hyun.
Sadly, this is Kang’s unexpected farewell performance. The actress, a star in Korea for several decades, died after completing the film. That sense of loss is eerily appropriate to the material, which considers how or when mimicry of the human brain constitutes its own life form, and what that kind of superficial life extension might mean to more traditional forms of consciousness. Though it has satirical moments, JUNG_E’s pangs of sadness grow within the movie as it proceeds.
By the time it circles back to a more spectacular climax, the movie feels like a genuine hybrid, rather than a case of tonal whiplash. When the movie shows a swarm of robots with generically human faces, they don’t just resemble the robot designs from the 2004 I, Robot; it feels like Yeon has made a weirder, more personal companion to that compromised movie, among others. JUNG_E has plenty of spare parts, and occasionally janky green-screen effects. But both the robots and humans it assembles move with unexpected grace.
JUNG_E is streaming on Netflix now.