Wandering Earth: China’s foray into Blockbuster Sci-Fi

The best parts of Wandering Earth occur when it sticks to its imaginative and unique premise. The worst parts occur when it tries to emulate Hollywood, becoming cliched and unoriginal.

Last month, the Chinese sci-fi movie Wandering Earth became available on Netflix. The movie is based on the short story by Cixin Liu, one of the most well known writers of Chinese science fiction, and the author of the Three Body Problem (see my review of the book).

The Plot

The Sun is expanding, heating up the Earth and slowly killing all species in it. The world unites to build huge fusion-powered thrusters on the Earth’s surface to steer it toward our closest star, Alpha Centauri.

And all this happens in the first 10 minutes of the movie, even before the title appears. Crazy? You bet.

The thrusters, called Earth Engines, start malfunctioning, putting it on a collision course with planet Jupiter. It is up to our intrepid (of course, Chinese) heroes to fix the Earth Engines, so that the planet may be saved.

The Good: The Holy Shit Plot and the Visuals

This premise is nothing short of imaginative, reminiscent of the Golden Age of science fiction. It’s classic Cixin Liu. The movie does a good job of making this premise believable, with stunning visual effects.

It feels like a Hollywood disaster movie, but a lot more well thought out.

One scene that still strikes me is when the characters visit the ruins of Shanghai, now covered by layers of ice. An old man who accompanies his grandson (the protagonist) says:

This was grandpa’s home. Look at those tall buildings…once, they were full of people. Back then, no one was concerned about the Sun. Everyone was concerned about this thing called money. Grandpa couldn’t make a lot of money back then, but I was happy every day.

Another thing that I found unique about the film was that every problem gets solved by many people working together, not just the heroes.

We see brief glimpses of other teams around the world, trying to get their own Earth Engines up and running, unlike other unbelievable Hollywood films where the heroes save the world by themselves.

Small things like this added detail to the world of Wandering Earth.

The Bad: Too Much Masala in the Manchurian

I haven’t read the story on which the film is based, but the movie is filled with cliches. There were some moments that felt like they were directly taken from other Hollywood films like Interstellar, Gravity, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. These scenes felt out of place, distracting us form the heart of the film.

The characters were also unremarkable. I didn’t really end up empathising with any of them. Some more focus on the stakes involved for each character would have helped.

The climax was underwhelming. The film tried too much to give a grand Hollywood finale, when something simpler would have sufficed.

While I appreciate that the movie tried to do something different from the one-man show of Hollywood heroes, it still has its flaws. Only the Chinese characters seem capable. The half-Australian sidekick was there just for comic relief.

Verdict

Overall, it’s good start for a Chinese SF film, despite it not worth anything more than a one-time watch. I hope it paves the way for more realistic and nuanced films out of China.

Image result for wandering earth netflix
A character looks at Jupiter, as blue trails from the Earth Engines light up the sky.

The spectacular visuals of Wandering Earth stayed with me, if nothing else. The night I finished watching it, I went outside to look up at the stars. I could see Jupiter.

I wondered how it would look if Jupiter were really close — as close as the moon.

Would I be able to see lightning in Jupiter’s dark side or aurorae near its poles? How would the Great Red Spot look?

For now, I could only look at the glowing beacon of Jupiter, and wonder.

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