I have watched Asian cinema all my life. And Asia, let alone China, is not at the top of my list as a source for science fiction films using hard science and incorporating state of the art special effects that would rival that of big budget Hollywood productions. As much as I love my Godzilla films, the effects have always been sub par and the science dubious at best.
The Wandering Earth is China’s big attempt at serious science fiction. That is something that not even Hollywood gets behind much as much of the science fiction we get these days fall on the more action-adventure and space opera vein. Every once in a while we may get an Arrival or The Martian, both of which were based on written works.
Cixin Liu’s novella of the same name serves as the source material for The Wandering Earth and he acts as an Executive Producer. Liu is China’s best-selling science fiction author and whose Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy (The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End) has achieved international acclaim including a Hugo award for The Three Body Problem. I find his writings to be very much like Arthur C. Clarke’s in vision and scope and it is apparent that classic Golden Age science fiction is an influence on his writing. The film, however, ends up flirting with the Roland Emmerlich territory of schmaltz and grandeur.
The film starts with title cards setting up that the sun is in its final stages of death and before dying off, will expand to engulf the inner planets. An ambitious plan is devised move the entire planet to the nearest star to survive. The journey will eventually take 2,500 years.
Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing lending star power and producer creds) is an astronaut who is about to embark on a mission in space where he will serve on space station that serves as a navigator for the earth. He promises to return to his young son Liu Qi that he will return when his time is up in 17 years. It is up to Han Zi’ang, the boy’s grandfather to raise him now.
Flash forward 17 years and we see that half the earth is peppered with 10,000 plateau sized engines with massive mountain sized ones encircling the equator. The surviving population (It’s implied that many were left on the surface and died) live underground near the engines. Liu Qi, now an adult drags his adopted sister Han Duoduo to the surface for no real discernible reason, actually. Outside of taking some kind of joyride in one of the massive ATV vehicles that services the local engine with fuel to burn, there is no reasoning for him wanting to stay up on the surface. They get busted for using his grandfather’s pass and gramps has to bail him out. In lockup next to Liu Qi is a, without explanation why, bi-racial Tim (played basically for comic relief by Chinese American Mike Sui).
As earth approaches Jupiter to take advantage of its massive gravity to help sling it out of the solar system, the effect of the gas giant’s gravity causes massive quakes across the globe shutting off many engines. It’s amidst this that our earthbound protagonists find themselves involved in a cold icy road trip to an engine in Shanghai with a maguffin to ignite it.
Meanwhile, on the navigation ship, the AI has determined that Jupiter’s gravity spike will actually pull the earth in and kill everyone so it enacts emergency protocols that require the crew to go into hibernation. True to science fiction trope and probably due to the fact that the ship’s AI, MOSS, looks quite a bit like HAL from 2001, things are not what they seem on the ship.
The movie goes from one bad situation to another until the end where true to most Chinese big budget films of late, only by cooperation, teamwork, struggle, and sacrifice can the world be saved.
Frant Gwo is not known for directing science fiction or big budget films and though he does a good job of visuals it seems as if he is padding a story that could be told a lot simpler to stretch it out to a two-hour runtime. Along the way will be clichés of the absent farther and resentment for that and a bit of Chinese nationalism. You can see influence from disaster epics from Roland Emmerlich and Michael Bay. But you can also see problem solving as in Apollo 13 or The Martian. The visual effects and set pieces are stunning and it is hard to believe that such impressive visuals were achieved on the equivalent of a $50 million budget. The image of Jupiter and its giant storm eye looming over a frozen earth is a stunning sight.
The script is a bit more convoluted than it needs to be and since it is marketed for a Chinese New Year release, of course several references to the Lunar New Year are thrown in about coming home, family, and hope for a better future. Yes it is very cheesy at times, but no more than any other epic disaster movie.
I do recommend reading the source material as it is only a scat 45 pages. The movie differs greatly from it in many aspects and basically uses the premise and some scenes as the basic core of the story.
The Wandering Earth is presented mainly in Mandarin with smatterings of other international languages like Russian, French, even Malay. The English subtitles are well done for the most part except for just a couple of syntax errors. And to reach an even wider Chinese audience, Chinese subtitles are above the English ones for non-Mandarin speakers. It is on its way to becoming either the biggest or second biggest grossing Chinese film ever.
It is not a perfect film but it is epic in scope and quite an achievement visually and its core story is quite good even if some of the dialogue can come across as corny. It is worth seeing in the theater for the visuals alone. Recommended.