2019 | Unrated | directed by Frant Gwo | 2 hrs 5 mins | In Mandarin with Subtitles |
After making a ton of money in China – $700 million – to become the 2nd highest grossing film in the country to date, the massive sci-fi epic The Wandering Earth steamrolls its way onto Netflix to be watched as intended – on a tablet. No, crank this bad boy up on the biggest screen with the deepest surround sound you have. It’s the only way to get caught up in the spectacle of it all, for Wandering Earth is a Chinese movie designed right out of the Hollywood summer blockbuster playbook and the smaller the screen the more those warts and the clichés we’ve seen since the late 90s disaster movie renaissance will bubble to the surface.
The film’s biggest appeal is it’s audacious, deliciously absurd premise – and the money spent to bring it to life. Our solar system’s sun is dying, so a United Earth Government commissions the building of – not space ships to send mankind into the stars, no, no – giant propulsion cannons on one side of the Earth. With half of mankind safely underground (from a lottery system we don’t see), the thrusters navigate the planet out of orbit to find a new star. Merely 6 months after the journey an attempt to slingshot around Jupiter goes horribly wrong and the Earth finds itself on a collision course with Jupiter.
Once the movie’s exposition and world introduction starts settling down and we get into the business of saving the Earth things start to get a bit more complicated. Wandering Earth’s execution isn’t nearly as fun as it’s premise, constantly leaning back on a dictionary’s worth of other sci fi films for conflicts and resolutions. Sunshine, Interstellar, 2001, Snowpiercer, Gravity, When World’s Collide, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012 – you name the sci fi or disaster movie and Wandering Earth grabs a little from it. But the movie that it most recalls, is Michael Bay’s 1998 oil drillers vs. asteroids disaster Armageddon and to the extent that Wandering Earth is a better, more fun, better looking and more genuinely felt version of Armageddon I am all about that. People always complain about useless remakes of classics, here is something close to a bad movie being remade into something that works. And hey, this movie has a space station in it and what sci fi movie with a space ship doesn’t also have an AI on board to talk back to the crew? MOSS steps in for HAL.
So why in God’s name does this patchwork of other movies work? It’s fun. Director Frant Gwo brings a giddy enthusiasm to the project. Where Armageddon is dreary and ugly, Wandering Earth is bright and glossy with the colorful visual style of a comic book. One visual bit I particularly liked shows our heroes dragging a fuel core up an elevator shaft, is shot far away like a side-scrolling video game. Where Armageddon is sappy, wrung out with an Aerosmith ballad and studio- mandated emotion, Wandering Earth is cheesy in a sci-fi B movie sort of way. Where Armageddon is oppressive, bleak, cynical and claustrophobic, Wandering Earth is big, airy, cartoonish, tense and hopeful. It’s a totally bizarre movie, a seeming 4-quadrant demo PG-13 blockbuster with a cute sense of humor that is also spiked with R rated profanity.
Where so many of our American studio blockbusters are pitched to the massive Chinese movie-going market these days, it’s interesting to see a Chinese movie swing back with a reflection of our own Hollywood tropes. It’s not a subtle film or a political film (sorry, it’s not about climate change, for a change) and it’s third act is a wholly predictable series of heroic sacrifices. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t. I still had a great time with it, a movie that almost demands to be seen by the sheer size of it’s audacity. I would watch this again in a heartbeat over Armageddon or The Day After Tomorrow.