China's Latest Big-Budget Sci-Fi Film 'Shanghai Fortress' Crashes After Liftoff

shanghai fortress STILL - H 2019
Huaxin Media

The alien invasion film was highly anticipated after the $700 million success of 'The Wandering Earth' earlier this year, but it has been brought low by withering reviews and audience complaints.

Shanghai Fortress, China's latest big-budget science fiction tentpole, crashed and burned shortly after liftoff over the weekend.

The expensive film's flop is a blow to the Chinese industry's efforts to ramp up production values so that it can begin competing with Hollywood's effects-heavy blockbusters on more equal footing. After the colossal success of sci-fi tentpole The Wandering Earth earlier this year — it earned $700 and rave local reviews — hopes were high that Shanghai Fortress might be the next big breakthrough.

Costing an estimated $57 million (RMB 400 million), Shanghai Fortress was developed and produced over a period of five years. The movie is an adaptation of a 2009 novel of the same name, about a group of young people hiding out in Shanghai, which has become humanity's last redoubt against a devastating alien invasion. It stars Taiwanese actress Shu Qi and pop star-turned-actor Lu Han (the latter previously Disney's marketing ambassador for the Star Wars franchise in China).

Shanghai Fortress briefly opened at the top of China's box office during the first half of Friday, but its ticket sales quickly plummeted as negative reviews and harsh word of mouth began to course through local social media. It earned $11 million Friday, but crashed to $3 million Saturday and $1.7 million Sunday, finishing in fourth place for the weekend with $15.4 million, including previews. Meanwhile, local animation hit Ne Zha added $66.5 million during the same frame, lifting its total to nearly $500 million after three weekends, according to Artisan Gateway.

Shanghai Fortress is rated just 3.3/10 on Douban, the influential Chinese film reviews website, and more than half of the 60,000-plus filmgoers who have scored the film gave it just one star out of five. On ticketing app Maoyan, where the scoring system tends to be much more generously weighted, Shanghai Fortress has a rating of 5.8/10, by far the lowest of any title now on release.

Online complaints about the film have come from all angles, including incoherence in its story, undercooked special effects and a poor performance from Lu Han, whose popularity stems more from his pop idol persona than his chops as an actor (local sci-fi buffs were critical back when Lu was cast in the film more than two years ago). Fans of the original Shanghai Fortress novel were particularly vocal about their disappointment in the film.

Shanghai Fortress’ director, Teng Huatao, responded to the flameout with a heartfelt apology posted to social media. "In the past, there were members of the audience who didn’t like my movies. But their criticism was always aimed at the movies [themselves]. But today I saw that some internet users are saying, 'The Wandering Earth opened the door to Chinese science fiction and Shanghai Fortress closed it,'" Teng wrote.

"I am very saddened," he went on. "This showed not only their dissatisfaction with the movie, but that their hopes for Chinese sci-fi were dashed. As the director, I have ultimate responsibility for this. I am very sorry."

Shanghai Fortress was Teng's first attempt at the sci-fi genre. He is best known for his romantic films, like Up in the Wind (2013) and Love Is Not Blind (2011), both successes. 

The lead producer of Shanghai Fortress is Chinese studio Huaxin Media, a subsidiary of HS Entertainment. China Film Group, Tencent Pictures and several other local film labels also had stakes in the movie. HS Entertainment has been preparing for a public offering in China; the disappointment of Shanghai Fortress could prove to be a setback to those plans.