While it wasn’t a great film overall, I still look at 2005’s The Island as one of director Michael Bay’s most thoughtful movies. The story revolves around a group of people in a futuristic underground community who don’t realize that they’re clones, awaiting organ harvest. A dark, chilling tale for what ends up being a typical Bay explosion-fest. Korean director Lee Young-ju explores a similar theme with the new sci-fi action thriller Seobok, but with much better results.
The story revolves around Seo Bok (Park Bo-Gum), a young man who has been raised in a laboratory. He’s the product of manipulated genetics and has a particular protein that gives him extraordinary regenerative capabilities. It also gives him the ability to control the world around him; throw a cup of coffee at him and it’ll bend around his body, missing him entirely. His personal kryptonite is that he needs a special drug injected directly into his spine every 24 hours or his cells will replicate out of control, killing him.
A human specimen whose blood can help others heal from all sorts of illnesses and possibly even extend their lives? Suffice to say that there’s a lot of interest in naive young Seo Bok from Americans, Korean millionaires, and just about everyone else who realizes his potential. When the research lab is compromised, it’s up to former intelligence officer Ki Heon (Gong Yoo) to transport Bok to a new, more secure facility. A journey that is complicated by the fact that Heon has a terminal illness and has been promised an injection of Bok’s curative blood once they arrive at their destination.
Meanwhile, the head of the research project, Dr. Im Se-Eun (Jang Young-Nam), has clearly lost control of the project along with her own sense of humanity: Bok is just a test subject so any pain he experiences is acceptable “in the name of science”. The real head of the project and the man who tasks Heon (Yoo) with the job of transporting Bok is Chief Ahn (Woo-jin Jo), whose loyalty is to the project over any other considerations.
The heart of the film is when Heon and Bok ramble through both rural and urban South Korea, an on-the-road trip. Heon slowly reveals some of his traumatic past and details about his illness as Bok looks around wide-eyed at a world he’s never imagined. Shades of Stranger in a Strange Land. Some of the most interesting scenes occur when the two of them are sitting at the water’s edge, talking. There are some deep, existential questions explored in Seobok, including what it means to be human, what’s acceptable in the name of medical research, and whether responsibility for past failings should overshadow the rest of someone’s life.
All of which is too often pushed into the background with another of the exciting but often incongruous action scenes. Bok has powers. And when he gets upset, he’s a formidable foe. But is he human? Does he even care about anyone, or is he just motivated by self-preservation? The action sequences, particularly in the last portion of the film, are very well assembled, in the same style as a good X-Men movie. You do not want to mess with this young man, though none of the antagonists in the film seem to have received that particular memo.
And that’s ultimately the weakness that undermines Seobok. It can’t quite decide if it’s a thoughtful and profound philosophical sci-fi film in the vein of Solaris or yet another in the long parade of superhero movies where terrific visual effects supplant a logical story and believable characters. Seobok has the foundation of a smart, thoughtful sci-fi film but ultimately can’t stick with its story. I’ll still recommend it, but don’t be surprised if it feels a bit like two movies merged together in a cinematic sci-fi mash-up.