'The Wandering Earth' ('Liulang diqiu'): Film Review

Derivative, but not without some space opera cred.

Wu Jing and Li Guangjie star in China’s first bona fide science fiction blockbuster, which is headed to the streaming giant Netflix.

Remember when everyone sat around their radios, eagerly awaiting news that the president had rallied the troops and the Americans were coming to save us in Independence Day — eager listeners that included the same British army that gave the world the SAS, the badasses all special forces aspire to? How everyone beyond American borders giggled at that. Times have changed, and the savior cap has been placed on China in director Frant Gwo’s The Wandering Earth, the US$650 million box office juggernaut that’s taken the PRC by storm and vindicated the industry by earning a Netflix release.

In fairness, Independence Day was simply one in a long line of genre actioners (anything by Michael Bay, Saving Private Ryan) that made the USA the hero, and so, perhaps with an eye toward a global release, the rah-rah jingoism expected from The Wandering Earth simply isn’t there (Old Glory is, however, conspicuously absent from patches on crew uniforms and space gear). More to (former) SARFT standards, the film presents a collective, global effort that appeals to our better natures, values heritage and respects authority. There’s no time travel — that’s still verboten — but the general positivity of the nearly conflict-free world of the story — there are bigger fish to fry after all — is likely what’s garnered the pic its respectable buzz.

Of course, as with any dollop of sci-fi foolery, there are ludicrous leaps in logic — and physics — that will grate on the nerves of non-nerds but which could get a pass from genre fans in the mood for a bit of old-fashioned space opera. The Wandering Earth drops the ball narratively: The story is nigh on incomprehensible and the “hero” is egregiously irritating, doing nothing to earn his big emotional third-act moment, but there’s enough here to earn the film a healthy amount of downloads and likely its share of special presentations on the festival circuit. Soft-selling the propaganda helps.

Based on a story by Hugo-winning hard sci-fi writer Liu Cixin (The Three-Body Problem), Wandering Earth has just enough real science in it to make anyone with a basic understanding of gravity roll their eyes but brush it off in order to enjoy the bigger picture, which also rolls in some hoary family drama and a heaping helping of redemption via personal sacrifice. In the near future, our sun very unexpectedly heads toward a red giant stage and will engulf the Earth and the solar system in roughly a century. The world mobilizes and the United Earth Government begins plans to — wait for it — install engines on the Equator (!), stop the globe’s spin (!!) and head off to Alpha Centauri (!!!) to carry on life at a new star. As you do. There are three parts to this plan, and the first involves astronaut Liu Peiqiang (Wolf Warrior’s Wu Jing) going to work on a new space station that’s going to act as a sort of tugboat for the planet. Or something. He leaves his young son Qi behind in the care of his father, Han Ziang (Hong Kong comedy veteran Ng Man-tat).

Things go as planned, and 17 years later with everyone living in giant underground, Blade Runner-esque cities, Qi (Qu Chuxiao) is a rebellious, resentful young man, furious with his father for “lying” to him about returning after his mission and killing his mother. Whatever, kid. One day deciding he wants to go outside, he breaks his adoptive little sister Han Duoduo (Zhao Jinmai, whose role is to be a girl) out of school to join him. Naturally, it’s at this point a mechanical malfunction ends with Earth getting caught in Jupiter’s gravity well, with imminent doom in 36 hours. Cue heroics, led by Liu, wrestling with deadly computer MOSS on the space station and Wang Lei (Li Guangjie, Drug War) on the ground. Wang is rescuing either a lost repair crew, a broken underground city engine or the main thruster at Sulawesi. It’s all very murky.

The Wandering Earth is derivative of nearly everything that’s come before it: Aside from Blade Runner, there are whiffs of SnowpiercerSunshinePredator (seriously), Interstellar2012, anything that featured a super-smart, murderous supercomputer (Mother, HAL, Proteus IV) and Star Wars, with a transport truck subbing for the Millennium Falcon on a final run on the warp core. But it doesn’t really matter, because once you get past the ridiculous central conceit and all the info dumps, the film is a sturdy romp with several cool set pieces of the frozen world, some stellar interpretations of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot and a pleasantly hopeful, humanitarian message. Some of the dodgier CGI may work better compressed on television screens and look less like game cut scenes, but the effects work by Weta Workshop, Pixomondo, Digital Domain and an army of other houses is mostly sharp, with the broken-down space aesthetic serving the story well.

The visuals prove crucial, as Qi makes for a weak central character. Other than Wu, Li, Ng and a jovial turn by Arkady Sharogradsky as Liu’s station mate, the characters and performances are thin archetypes that often make little sense even within the pic’s own context. There’s a despondent soldier type (a woman, of course), an obnoxious Australian-Chinese comic relief coward who comes through in the end, a meek scientist who sacrifices himself executing his own plan, etc, etc. But Qi is the most glaring problem. His misplaced whining is matched in stupidity only by the script’s insistence that he’s morally right at key story points. He’s not, and it makes getting invested in the character difficult.

However, the movie appears to be accomplishing what Zhang Yimou’s considerably higher-profile The Great Wall could not in winning over global audiences. Gwo maintain a laser focus on his core audience, and so keeps the story, such as it is, honest: This is ultimately a very Confucian tale of an honorable father, his bitter but ultimately understanding son and the two acting for the greater good on the path to healing. The Wandering Earth knows what it is and stays true to that.

Production company: China Film Group
U.S. Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Gu Chuxiao, Li Guangjie, Ng Man-tat, Zhao Jinmai, Wu Jing, Qu Jingjing
Director: Frant Gwo
Screenwriters: Gong Geer, Yan Dongxu, Frant Gwo, Ye Junce, Yang Zhixue, Wu Yi, Ye Ruchang, based on a story by Liu Cixin
Producer: Gong Geer
Executive producer: Liu Cixin
Director of photography: Michael Liu
Production designer: Ann Gao
Costume designer: Cody Gillies
Editor: Cheung Ka-fai
Music: Roc Chen, Tao Liu
World sales: China Film Group

In Putonghua
126 minutes