Release: Monday, May 6, 2019 (Netflix)
Written by: Gong Ge’er; Junce Ye; Yan Dongxu; Yang Zhixue; Frant Gwo
Directed by: Frant Gwo
Describing The Wandering Earth as an ambitious movie is an understatement. That’s like saying Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad had cult followings. The sheer scale and spectacle on display make the likes of Michael Bay and Peter Jackson look like film school students operating on shoestring budgets.
The movie presents a doomsday scenario to end all doomsday scenarios. In the year 2061 we face annihilation as our Sun is dying and will within a century swell to encompass Earth’s orbit and within 300 years the entire solar system. In order for us — or what’s left of us — to survive we need to find a new galactic home. We’ve targeted the Alpha Centauri system as our destination. Building a bunch of space-worthy life rafts is neither practical nor egalitarian — who knows whether the darned things would survive the 2,500-year odyssey, and at $30 million a ticket that basically ensures only the Jeff Bezos of the world would be able to go.
So get this: We’re going to push the entire rock out of harm’s way using thousands of fusion-powered thrusters clamped on to the Earth’s surface. Each one the size of a city, they require an incredible amount of human ingenuity (and cooperation) to work properly. (There’s the operative phrase in movies like this — you just know something will go wrong with them at just the worst time.) We’ll use Jupiter as a slingshot to get us out of the solar system and a leading space station manned by a few brave scientists/engineers who defer to a computer that’s cribbed right from a certain Stanley Kubrick film to guide us through the cosmic dark. If all goes according to plan we should avoid getting sucked in by the giant planet’s strong gravitational field and dying a very gaseous death.
When it comes to the human side of the equation, The Wandering Earth is much less ambitious. Admittedly, human drama isn’t the reason this Chinese blockbuster has become a global sensation. But it would be nice if there were compelling characters to further bolster this awesome visual spectacle. I suppose therein lies the difference between American and Chinese filmmaking — The Wandering Earth certainly emphasizes collective over individual triumph. That’s compelling in its own way. But then half of the running time is devoted to the rebellious — downright reckless and seriously contrived — actions of a resentful Liu Qi (Chuxiao Qu) and his less-resentful but just-as-thrill-seeking adopted sister Han Duoduo (Jin Mai Jaho) as they become thrust into a last-ditch attempt to restart the planetary thrusters after sustaining heavy damage due to an unforeseen gravitational spike near Jupiter. A promise made and then broken by their father (played by famed martial arts actor/director Jing Wu) sets the stage for an attempt at intimacy but that simply gets lost in all the catastrophic disaster set pieces.
Just as the story finds humanity in a major transitional period, The Wandering Earth finds director Frant Gwo undergoing a major one himself. Prior to filming China’s first “full-scale interstellar spectacular” he had only two feature film credits to his name — neither of which hinted towards his next project being anything like this. In an industry largely built upon plush historical/martial arts epics there was understandably some reticence toward forging a new frontier. There was such little faith in Gwo’s ability to deliver that actors not only sacrificed paychecks but personally invested in the film to ensure the show would go on and became real-life saviors for the film. Wu, for example, was never intended to be a lead; he initially agreed to be in only one scene but the film needed star power and so Gwo rewrote the script, tailoring it to a father-son dynamic that, at least in theory, forms the emotional core of the movie.
The Wandering Earth, since its release back in February, has gone on to become the second-highest grossing non-English film ever made, earning $700 million in China alone. Netflix picked up the rights to distribute and well, here we are, navigating perilously between episodes of cataclysmic destruction, each one of them enough to wipe us all out on their own. The challenges that face Liu Qi and co. alone make 2012 look like a quaint little indie movie.
It’s a lot to process — or, you know, not process. State-sponsored messaging aside, it’s totally down to the individual as to whether you can take this puree of nonsensical, approximated science and unearned sentimentality at face value — “hey, it’s all in the name of good old-fashioned, goofy fun” — or whether the absurd physics required to save us again (and once again) are just a bridge too far.
Asking me? I appreciated the lack of Aerosmith, at the very least. The Wandering Earth presents a dire situation in a way that’s easy to watch with your jaw slacked and brain on autopilot. At points it becomes surprisingly dark. And boy does the thing look gorgeous. Despite the computer rendering essentially subbing as Characters they help you invest in the visual spectacle. Yet The Wandering Earth, just for the simple fact someone conceived of this, earns a spot on my shelf of guilty-pleasure, geek-tastic sci fi blow-outs. It slides in well above the likes of Armageddon and The Day After Tomorrow while never coming close to competing with more intellectually-stimulating adventures like Interstellar and Sunshine.
Recommendation: A classic example of popcorn-destroying, mindless entertainment that feels like a Hollywood production but one without an American hero in sight. Filled with as many impressive visual effects as plot holes, The Wandering Earth should entertain sci fi fans in search of their next epic space adventure — one they can consume right in their laps (or via their cushy little home theater set-ups). Spoken mostly in Mandarin with English subtitles.
Running Time: 125 mins.
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