Review: THE WANDERING EARTH Is A Rousing Space Adventure
Frant Gwo directs a space adventure film starring Wu Jing
Mainland China may not be known for its high concept science fiction, but it's not for fear of spending millions of dollars on films. Over the last 50 years, China has produced some of the most impressive period action and drama films anywhere in the world. Filmmakers like Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, and Feng Xiaogang have made massive spectacle films that celebrate and embellish the history of China and its incredible opulence to great success. However, sci-fi has always been just outside of the nation's wheelhouse, which makes The Wandering Earth such an incredibly impressive anomaly.
Based on a novella by Liu Cixin, The Wandering Earth tells the story of a time in the not too distant future when our sun has begun the process of dying, and it's terminal expansion threatens to extinguish all life on Earth. As a solution, the United Earth Government (UEG) has commissioned ten thousand "earth engines" designed to propel our planet out of the solar system to the nearest inhabitable system, a massive undertaking that will take 2,500 years to complete. However, before our happily ever after, there are some obstacles to clear, and this film takes place seventeen years after the initial plan is put into place when the first such obstacle threatens to derail the whole proposition.
As the Earth makes its way out of its natural orbit and toward the edge of the solar system, it must first pass through the massive gravitational field of Jupiter, which proves to be a bigger problem than anyone had expected. The only way the Earth will succeed is through the combined efforts of the teams keeping the literal flames alight on the home world and the navigational space station team attempting to guide three and a half billion people to safety. It's not an easy job, but then again, the assembled team is not your average group.
The Wandering Earth is a marvel of imagination, inspiration, execution, and excitement. With a cast led by new age Chinese superstar Wu Jing (Wolf Warrior 2), the film tells the parallel tales of redemption both on Earth and in the navigation space station with due attention paid to both.
Wu Jing plays Liu Peiqiang, an astronaut and scientist who is among the first men sent into space to start this mission. He leaves behind a young son Liu Qi, played as an adult by Qu Chuxiao, and his guardian and grandfather Han Zi'ang (Ng Man-tat). When the real action begins, Liu Qi is a disillusioned young man looking after his adopted sister Han Duoduo (Zhao Jinmai), determined to live a life free of the constraints of underground life put upon him and the other survivors when the Earth leaves its orbit.
Unfortunately for Duoduo and Liu Qi, a brief sojourn to the surface transforms into a life or death race to save the planet when their transport is commandeered by a rescue squad. The adventures of this squad and the two children make up the bulk of the film's running time as they race from one near tragedy to another, losing loved ones, acquaintances, patience, and faith along the way. The only way they will save the Earth is if they can pull together as a team and act as a unit, I'm sure you can see where this goes.
Director Frant Gwo builds multiple worlds of impressive breadth to pull off this massive undertaking, and this work is very impressive. There is an Earth that is decades beyond cataclysmic changes, plunged into interstellar deep freeze that results in glaciers engulfing most major cities. A barren landscape frequently overwhelms the screen, leaving viewers to imagine the events that must've led to such a tragedy. Then there is the massive space station that plays host to Liu Peiqiang and a team of largely ineffective astronauts, controlled by an AI named MOSS that is determined to protect its own interests, even at the cost of the lives on board.
The vistas presented in The Wandering Earth are truly stunning, and worthy of the big screen experience. The iced over Earth is a harrowing vision of the future that stretches as far as the eye can see in every direction. The frozen seas over which military style transports carry crucial cargo render the Earth's topography meaningless as these vehicles drive across what were once oceans, but are now no more than frozen roads. Some of the film's most impressive sequences mirror the kind of apocalyptic visions of lesser films like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, but with greater emotional stakes and even better looking aesthetics.
Add to these impressive visuals, a genuinely engaging emotional story involving an estranged father and son, and a parallel relationship between the son and his adopted sister, and you've got a film that puts most other films in its category to shame. While The Wandering Earth borrows liberally from established science fiction films like Armageddon, and perhaps most directly 2001, it never does so in a way that is disrespectful or flippant. These films were effective for a reason, and The Wandering Earth studies what made those films tick and reshuffled the beats to create something new, if not always unpredictable.
There is a lot to be impressed about with The Wandering Earth, and smarter men than I will no doubt be able to dissect the political and philosophical themes better than I ever could. There is the ultimate success of communal effort that leads to a global government, there is a Biblical flood that cleanses the Earth of those not chosen to survive when the planet's tidal patterns cease and the seas rise, and on and on and on, however, none of these feel overtly jingoistic, even though they certainly have the potential to go overboard.
What matters in The Wandering Earth is that we not only survive, but triumph over our challenges. In a film like this, there is really no plausible doubt that the tide will turn in our favor, but the tension lays in the method of salvation. Who will survive, what sacrifices will need to be made, and will it be worth the pain? The answers to these questions are honestly pretty predictable, but in this case it doesn't take away from the emotional punch when the inevitable finally comes to fruition. The Wandering Earth is one of the most successful science fiction films of the last decade in that regard, it has no shame in which heartstrings it pulls, and it plays its audience like a fiddle. Thankfully for us, it's a beautiful song that I could listen to a million times over.