Review: The Wandering Earth is an imaginative spectacle that launches Chinese films into the space age.

The Wandering Earth is the historical breakthrough Chinese sci-fi has been waiting for a long time.

Faced with the threat of the sun swallowing up the Earth, humans chose to embark on a 2500 year journey to find a new place in the universe for their home, Earth. The ambitious plan involves three hundred years of scientists around the world building ten thousand propellers around the Earth, stopping the  Earth’s rotation, and then finally propelling the Earth into its long journey into the dark night. But first, they must get out of the solar system by escaping Jupiter’s gravitational pull.

The almost as ambitious film The Wandering Earth 流浪地球 is half disaster film, half space thriller,  and a full classic holiday film about the importance of going home for the holidays. While not nearly as polished as Hollywood blockbusters (and with a fraction of the budget), the film offers uniquely Chinese visions of the future that makes it stand-out.  Despite its clear flaws,  the Frant Gwo-direct film has a solid plot, suspenseful and well-shot action scenes for both its earth disaster and space scenes, plenty of scenes that appeals to your inner holiday spirit,  and solid CGI combined with imaginative setups that makes this the historical breakthrough Chinese sci-fi has been waiting for a long time.

My favorite trailer for the film: 

Based loosely on the short story by Liu Cixin (The Three Body Problem) , the film follows two parallel plots, one about a group of rescue workers on Earth trying to deliver the starter for a broken propeller from Beijing to Hangzhou (perhaps to parallel the route of the Grand Canal), and another  about an astronaut (Wu Jing) on space trying to take control of the International Space Center that is threatening to escape the Earth to start a new civilization.

The film is packed with one climax after another, so that often as one problem seems to be solved, another arises. You don’t even know if they’re going to succeed in any one of them since they do fail several times.

While not nearly as polished as Hollywood blockbusters,, the film offers uniquely Chinese visions of the future that makes it stand-out.

Also, I didn’t think a disaster film would be the perfect holiday movie, but this film was exactly that. Chinese New Year decorations and celebrations are seen throughout the film, and the film itself has the classic holiday theme of the importance of going home for the holidays.

Other than the clear Chinese New Year theme that permeates throughout the film, the film is uniquely Chinese in many ways. Two themes stand out. First, the idea of home as a place you cannot leave. It pits the traditional Hollywood idea of taking a DNA bank to a new planet to start anew with the film’s original idea of taking Earth with them.  In one interview, the director talked about migration comes much easier to Hollywood than to China, whose people are rooted in the land they grew up on. It’s why the male lead’s nickname is literally hukou, the identifying information that ties a Chinese person to the place of their birth.

The other is the super communist message of collaboration and internationalism. The world is not saved by the leads, but by people like the leads.  The leads are one of dozens (in one plot) or thousands (in another) of people around the world who are all trying to save the world. The camera just happens to be focused on these particular ones.  In the film’s world, everyone wears a translation headset so that they can all understand each other even while speaking in their own language.  The world is governed by a united world government that speaks French as its official language. Wu Jing is shown as one of many astronauts trying to simultaneously rebel against the international space center.   Rather than one team tasked with saving the planet, the leads are one of the thousands of teams around the world to set up the propellers, and all of them must come together to save Earth. *spoiler*  In one scenario where multiple international teams arrive to aid the leads, the order of arrival of the teams is the order of arrival of international rescue teams for the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. *spoiler*

The film’s flaws are clear and sometimes painfully obvious – dialogue is cheesy and character development is weak. – but those can be forgiven since the overall film is enticing and coherent enough, and is packed with enough imaginative details that I was too busy to cringe. I mean, come on, the film tries to blow up Jupiter, what more can you want?   Plus, it’s a miracle the film was even made since it was I so poor that for the space plot, Wu Jing acted in it for free and the set and astronaut suits are hand-me-downs that Ning Hao, the director of Crazy Aliens, gave them for free. With a budget of only $50 million, this film delivers.

As my favorite Chinese sci-fi novelists Han Song said, this film is the first year of a new era for Chinese sci-fi, and it’s an imperfect but definitely worthy one.  Spoiler: this film ends in year seventeen of The Age of The Wandering Earth that’s suppose to last over two thousand years. Get ready for so many sequels and more sci-fi films to follow in its trail.

The film opens this weekend in North America, Canada, and New Zealand. There have been additional theaters added since the last post, but I can’t find the new list anymore, so if your local theater sometimes shows Chinese films, you may want to check even if it’s not on this list.

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