Movie Review: The Wandering Earth (流浪地球)

With China becoming a legitimate space power with its Chang’e-4 probe recently making the first-ever soft landing on the far side of the moon, it was inevitable that the country’s movie industry would produce a big budget sci-fi film. While THE WANDERING EARTH borrows very heavily from such Hollywood predecessors as PASSENGERS; ARMAGEDDON; 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY; BLADE RUNNER; THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW; SNOWPIERCER; SUNSHINE; INTERSTELLAR and more, with a production budget of US$50 million, it’s no slouch.

At some point in the near future, the sun is showing signs of dying out. The world’s nations combine to form the United Earth Government and make plans to move the planet out of the solar system and over to the Alpha Centauri system – a trek that is estimated to take a couple thousand years – using a network of gigantic fusion-powered thrusters set up around the equator. To facilitate the move, Chinese astronaut Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing/吳京) goes on a 17-year mission up to an international space station, sending his 4-year-old son, Liu Qi, and his father-in-law, Han Ziang (Hong Kong actor Ng Man Tat/吳孟達), to live in a subterranean city along with a few billion others who have been selected by the UEG to survive. Fast forward 17 years and the young man (now played by Qu Chuxiao/屈楚萧) has grown up to be a rebel without a cause. Just before the lunar new year, he pulls his 14-year-old sister, Han Duoduo (Zhao Jinmai/趙今麥), out of school and the pair makes their way to the planet’s frozen surface for some unexplained reason. (We learn later on how Liu Qi can have a 14-year-old sister when his father has been up in space all that time.) While they’re up there, Jupiter’s gravitational pull causes massive earthquakes on Earth, disabling the thrusters. There is serious concern that Earth will be sucked into the larger planet if the thrusters don’t get restarted right away so, with just hours left, the kids get pulled into a mammoth rescue mission to deliver a lighter core to the Sulawesi station. Meanwhile, Liu Peiqiang does all that he can on the space station but, while doing so, he learns that the UEG’s mission isn’t quite what he was told.

Many Hollywood sci-fi films have preposterous storylines so we shouldn’t be too hard on THE WANDERING EARTH for its crazy story. On the most basic level, wouldn’t it have been easier/cheaper/less risky/less deadly to have put everyone on spaceships and sent them to Alpha Centauri than to move the whole planet? The adage about Mohammed and the mountain comes to mind. And here are a few other questions I had while watching this film: First, when Liu Qi and Han Doudou go to the Earth’s surface, why don’t they just float away? Why hasn’t gravity changed? Second, how is the Earth surface going to be inhabitable after all the animal life has been eliminated, not to mention that it’s pretty much been destroyed now by all the earthquakes and tidal waves? And third, why didn’t anyone have a can of WD-40 handy?

While no expense seems to have been spared in the special effects department, it’s too bad that more money wasn’t spent making a more believable story with sympathetic characters. We’re supposed to cheer for Liu Qi but he’s nothing more than a petulant brat who has daddy issues. Han Doudou doesn’t fare much better as her role in the film is to pout, blow bubbles with her chewing gum and whine. I felt sorry for the father and grandfather because they deserved better than those two. The story is based on the novella of the same name by Liu Cixin (劉慈欣), who is a nine-time winner of the Galaxy Award, China’s most prestigious literary science fiction award. I’m going to assume that something got lost when the story was turned into a screenplay.

Even so, what do I know? The film was released over the lunar new year holiday season in China and it raked in over US$300 million in just six days – a record for a Chinese film. Its box office take has now climbed to over US$650 million and it has only just been released overseas. On February 20, Netflix announced that it had acquired the rights to stream the film on its platform. So if you’re not living in one of the cities where the film will come to the cinema, just wait a few weeks longer and you’ll be able to watch it at home.

THE WANDERING EARTH is silly, but good for China for showing that it can make lush sci-fi films almost as well as Hollywood can.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, March 1st at 8:30 am HK time!

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