The Wandering Earth (China, 2019)

 After a massively successful worldwide theatrical run, Frank Gwo’s The Wandering Earth finally saw its long-promised Netflix release, where millions of subscribers can at long last admire what has been labeled as China’s first blockbuster science fiction film. With a budget estimated at $50 million, the film is a testament to the universality of the Hollywood formula, in which ridiculous car chases times big explosions plus a touch of fabricated sentimentality equals a worldwide hit. The Wondering Earth delivers exactly what it promises – two hours of excessive CGI spectacle that, sadly, comes at the cost of everything else. 

Based on the novella of the same name by esteemed SF author, Liu Cixin, The Wandering Earth tells the story of a world at the brink of global catastrophe. In this version of the solar system, the sun has suddenly destabilized and will go nova much sooner than expected, engulfing Earth and the rest of the planets in just a few hundred years. In the face of certain extinction, all of Earth’s governments put aside their differences and came together to craft a plan of survival. They decided to install 10,000 fusion propellers, pushing the Earth outside the solar system and on a 2,500-year journey to a new star. Thirty years later, their project hits a devastating roadblock. While Earth passes nearby Jupiter (a necessary step to achieve full escape velocity), an unexpected gravity spike deflects Earth’s trajectory and sets it on a doomed collision course with the gas giant. Unless someone stops it, Earth and the entire human race will be gone.

Caught in the center of this apocalyptic mayhem are teenager Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao), his astronaut father Liu Peiquang (Wu Jing), his grandfather Han Zi’ang (Ng Man-tat), and his adopted sister Han Duoduo (Zhao Jinmai). Along with a supporting cast of standard action-film archetypes, our protagonists must repair the damaged thrusters in order to save the wandering earth. And, of course, they must do so in the most action-packed manner possible, lest they risk exposing the senseless and paper-thin plot they have managed to get themselves into. This film has it all. Plane crashes, car chases, elevator acrobatics, and even a sequence of relentless machine-gun shots at the surface of Jupiter (yes, that Jupiter!) – all piling towards a magnificent crescendo that defies not only the laws of physics, but also those of simple 4th grade logic. Along the way, some character moments do sip in, such as the relationship between Liu and his grandfather, or his estranged father, though in most cases they come through lazy and expository monologues.

Liu Cixin has made a name for himself in China and internationally with such novels as Ball Lightning and the Three Body Problem trilogy. Liu’s writing takes a lot of inspiration from the so-called Golden Age of American science fiction, marked by a focus on high-concept ideas and the serious exploration of humanity’s future. The Wondering Earth novella certainly belongs in this category, though its film adaptation seems uninterested in that aspect of the story. To every science fiction fan’s chagrin, the film draws very little from its source material. Penned by an army of unrecognizable screenwriters (another page from the Hollywood studios’ book), the film carries neither the scientific rigor nor the poetic charm of Liu’s excellent novella. It is instead a monstrous amalgamation of the worst of Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay, trading ideas for green-screen extravaganza and cardboard characters whose actions often border the irrational.

Much of the film’s look is either derivative or incredibly generic, borrowing from the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Blade Runner (1982), and pretty much every forgettable science fiction film or TV series made in the 2000s. An antagonistic AI, clearly modeled after HAL (all the way to the glowing red eye), also makes an appearance, albeit one that is hardly memorable. Certain design elements deserve their due praise, such as the fusion thrusters, or the external shots of Earth and Jupiter, but the light-speed pace of the film, and the constant push for action and disaster makes them hard to appreciate. 

Regardless of its many shortcomings, The Wandering Earth has been lauded by audiences and critics as a major first step towards the development of Chinese SF cinema. Especially the big-budget kind. But while it might be time that Hollywood ended its monopoly on the blockbuster science fiction movies, I hope that this metamorphosis does not happen at the cost quality. Not when such great material as Liu Cixin’s work is available at hand. I only hope that the in the works adaptation of the Three Body Problem pays greater respect to the genre.

John Atom