By Daniel Wu
Last week, in between all the “Avengers” and “Game of Thrones” mania, the third-highest grossing film of 2019 quietly dropped on Netflix. Making the top three in a year dominated by Iron Man, Captain Marvel and co. is no small achievement. But Disney’s competition at the top isn’t “Shazam!” or “Us” or “Detective Pikachu” – leave it to the Chinese movie market to actually throw enough money at a film to muscle onto the box office podium. That film is “The Wandering Earth,” and it’s turning heads not just as a cash cow but as a watershed for big-budget Chinese sci-fi. First steps forward aren’t always the best ones – China’s biggest and baddest science fiction blockbuster to date feels mostly like a multi-million dollar B-movie. But it does what B-movies do best, smashing a smorgasbord of tropes and homages together into an intriguing portrait of the decades of science fiction it’s been inspired by. And it’s just about bombastic, ridiculous and earnest enough to be a lot of fun.
That fun starts with a properly ridiculous B-movie plot. Decades into the future, the Earth is at risk of being swallowed up by the swelling of the Sun. Naturally, the governments of the world unite to build giant rocket engines across the Earth to propel the planet through space to a new solar system. Something screws up en route, however, and the Earth winds up caught in the gravitational pull of Jupiter, leaving scientists scrambling to save the planet from being sucked into Jupiter and destroyed. It’s a premise that would put the writers of “Geostorm” or “2012” to shame, and it’s played utterly deadpan without a hint of self-awareness. Crazy enough, though, this works to “The Wandering Earth”’s advantage. The film has a surprisingly rich background to draw from as the (very loose) adaptation of a short story by Hugo award-winning author Liu Cixin. Liu’s fantastical sci-fi imagination and knack for world-building shine through: the film, in its earnesty, takes the time to explore the curious details of the world in “The Wandering Earth,” from the intricate plans scientists develop to escape Jupiter’s orbit to daily life in the underground bunker cities people are forced to live in (because – try to keep up – moving the Earth with rockets has stopped its planetary rotation, which would obviously transform its surface into a frozen wasteland). In between smudges of CGI action and flat characters, those touches feel like good, compelling sci-fi. If nothing else, “The Wandering Earth” presents the bombastic spectacle of an utterly original concept for a science fiction world.
And that’s just as well, because the rest of the film’s presentation – its set pieces, beats and visual design – will look awfully familiar. “The Wandering Earth” is explicit, judicious, and utterly shameless in its borrowing from generations of Hollywood science fiction. Director Frant Gwo and crew stuck every sci-fi trope and movie scene from the past two decades in a blender and ratcheted up whatever came out. The bunker cities looks like repurposed “Pacific Rim” sets, the frozen Earth above is straight from “The Day After Tomorrow,” Earth’s soldiers wear the robotic exosuits of either “Elysium” or “Edge of Tomorrow,” and up in space a poor astronaut has to pinball around the outside of a space station like he’s in “Gravity.” There’s even a definitely-not-evil AI computer with a glowing red eye. This doesn’t detract from the novelty of “The Wandering Earth”’s initial premise, to be sure. But all of Liu’s world-building can’t distract from such glaring imitation in the film’s execution. From an original concept, every subsequent choice in the aesthetics and production of “The Wandering Earth”evokes familiarity and imitation. Eventually, the film feels but a cheesy Aerosmith song away from being just a mixtape of cinema’s most iconic sci-fi hits.
That will be grating for some. But once you get past the eyeball-rolling and the deja vu, the movie’s pandering does manage a degree of corny charm. It helps that these ‘homages’ are grafted, however haphazardly, onto an original premise. There’s also an incredibly refreshing novelty in seeing Hollywood’s tropes recast in an unabashedly Chinese story – it is, for once, not the Statue of Liberty but Shanghai’s Pearl Tower that dominates the skyline of the movie’s frozen apocalyptic wasteland.
Ultimately, the sheer volume of the film’s references and rip-offs feels more reverential than derivative, and helps “The Wandering Earth” leverage a too-serious-to-take-seriously tone that balances the deadpan plot. It’s so blatant that Gwo must know exactly what he’s doing – this is nothing more, and nothing less, than a sci-fi extravaganza going for broke. And that has its merits. There is something fascinating – and thrilling – about seeing several decades of Hollywood distilled and refracted back in a single film. Gwo seems to be aware of the unique cultural context “The Wandering Earth” film carries, as one of China’s first sci-fi blockbusters in a world industry already stuffed to the brim with them. “The Wandering Earth” inevitably brings with it the influences and hallmarks of a long tradition of science fiction film. Gwo’s decision to enter that tradition by acknowledging and celebrating this legacy pays off well, and he leverages the movie’s original plot and focus on China brilliantly to provide a fresh canvas to do so. It offers perhaps the most striking of the film’s charms.
By most other goalposts, “The Wandering Earth” is not a great film. The ending strains plausibility to the utter breaking point and the characters, mostly one-note roles surrounding a whiny, unlikeable protagonist, carry themselves with an exhausting melodrama that feels unearned. The action sequences are blurs of mediocre CGI. And the antagonist is literally HAL 9000 speaking Chinese. “The Wandering Earth” is held back because it isn’t able to shake the cliches and ludicrousy of a science fiction B-movie. But maybe it never wanted to. “The Wandering Earth” offers, instead, an unrestrained exhibition of science fiction cinema that heedlessly swings for the fences – and excitingly declares Chinese sci-fi to be part and parcel of this tradition.
Contact Daniel Wu at dwu21 ‘at’ stanford.edu.