Among the sparking debris and lingering dust a warrior rises, armed to the teeth and pumping with adrenaline, flying across the battlefield to dismantle her metal foes. Eyes flooded with fury, executing her every move with unwavering confidence and precise perfection. The dystopic landscape ravaged by the havoc of war, surrounded by flame and gunfire, structures crumbling and collapsing. The enemy grows steadily stronger, an impossibly iterative and seemingly unending horde of machines learning from every mistake. The last hope, or so it seems, yet still mortal, eventually caught by the wrong bullet and shredded through the steel, servos, and wiring. Sever connection, shut down brain function. End simulation.
The premise of Yeon Sang-ho’s dystopic science fiction tale JUNG_E is more than enough to draw intrigue, even if it’s often a vaguely derivative mashup of a lot of familiar concepts. In the near future, Earth has become so brutally inhospitable that we begin sending terraformed residential satellites into low orbit. For unexplained and unexplored reasons, three of the satellites declare sovereignty and a civil war breaks out. Now desperately grasping at an escape from the unending turmoil of war, a group of researchers left on the surface of the planet attempt to train the ultimate combat AI robot, using the genetic foundation of Earth’s greatest hero.
Sure, it’s a sprinkle of Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and a dash of Elysium (2013) blended into the existential musings of Blade Runner (1982), but if Yeon Sang Ho’s breakout hit Train to Busan (2016) could breathe new life into the stagnant world of zombie cinema, maybe he could do the same for grungy cyberpunk. What at first appears to be a refreshing and fun step up from previous outing Peninsula (2020) quickly becomes a turgid, empty shell of a film, barreling onto the screen at full speed only to grind to a screeching halt. Uninterested in doing any of the things that make its inspirations feel like lived-in sci-fi landscapes, JUNG_E becomes a rapidly collapsing collection of clashing ideas inside a complete vacuum, a story in a world that never seems to exist.
The world beyond the small laboratory and occasional flashes of home life we’re granted of protagonist Seo-hyun (Kang Soo-youn) exists only in droning exposition, redundantly being told of the dying Earth and its extant turmoil while being granted no window into it. It is a ghost world, devoid of identifiable politics or even inhabitation, a cold approach that detaches the viewer from feeling any sort of tangible empathy towards its universe. The narrative thrust comes from a heroic military figure described as the critical image of victory, but we get none of the gritty warmongering propaganda of Edge of Tomorrow. The world exists on the scorched Earth and in the sky above, but we get none of the contrasted class warfare of Elysium ((2013) a bad film in its own right, but at least Blomkamp creates distinct atmospheres and aesthetics and populates them with actual people). Seo-hyun and her coworkers take thinly veiled Voight-Kampff tests to assess their humanity and exist in the shadow of a mysterious and monolithic megacorp, but we get none of the pensive contemplation nor any of the shimmering cyberpunk streets of Blade Runner.
The film occasionally spits ideas about existential autonomy, the lingering ghostly apparitions of past lives, and how much we must detach ourselves from our humanity to serve the needs of violent conflict, but there is nothing to connect to, no living tissue to generate importance surrounding any of its ideas. It is hollow and unfocused, constantly switching gears and aiming at prolonged narrative arcs that are far less interesting than anything happening around them. It feels less like a singular film and more like a disparate entry into a franchise that has already molded the shape of this reality. JUNG_E is a simulation, a proving ground for the lofty goal of a meticulously crafted slice of sci-fi cinema heaven, but this remains in the testing phases, crippled at the knee by a mediocre narrative that can’t carry the weight of its philosophical endeavors or its political emptiness. It has failed its own test – it is cold, unfeeling, and inhuman. Its rare bursts of action are a noticeable step above Peninsula’s ugly visuals and cartoonish antics, and still can’t manage to inject the film with enough life to feel like a worthwhile endeavor or even a big swing that just didn’t connect. Maybe grungy cyberpunk just needs a break.