There is a shot during what functions as the prologue chapter to The Wandering Earth whose awesome nature leads one to believe that this is more than merely some basic re-skinning of the sci-fi dystopian concept. Much of the film’s effects appear as the computer generated facades that they are, plasticky backdrops and accoutrements. So does this shot, but the gooey melting plastic of a planet in motion away from a star has a cosmic majesty to it, which director Frant Gwo captures superbly.
The planet in the shot is Earth itself, being propelled away from the sun of our solar system to avoid the star’s potentially apocalyptic ecological effects. In 100 years, the sun will destroy the entire planet. In the meantime, extreme temperatures have prevailed, raising the sea level and over-heating the equator.
For the film to address the issue of climate change, however obliquely and nested within a science fiction understanding of global crisis, is intriguing given the film’s direct ties to the Chinese government. Produced by China Film Group Corporation, a state-owned film industry monopoly that controls a large portion of film production, distribution, and exhibition of the country’s imported and exported film product, The Wandering Earth has reportedly been a source of pride for government officials.
To be fair, though, the film does take place in an unspecified future. And there is no direct politicization in the film’s narrative or themes (aside from one slightly anti-capitalist monologue). All the same, The Wandering Earth is an anomalistic beast in Chinese cinema. It is a monster money maker competing in a pool of China Film Group-regulated Hollywood imports. For China to be able to boast a film that can potentially rival the American blockbuster in its domestic sphere is something that the government would understandably rally behind.
But the film does not rival Hollywood blockbusters in budget. At a reported US$50 million budget, the seams in this sci-fi world are consistently evident. Although, at that price point the vastness of the imagined future world is impressive. The film is quick to exit the cityscape in favor of vast stretches of frozen tundra, perhaps in order to accomplish this vast world on a budget, but overall the visual effects are only marginally distracting.
What is more distracting is the lack of heart in the cast of characters we are presented with. At the core of the conflict—a random gravitational shift in Jupiter’s atmosphere alters the trajectory of Earth, fatally pulling it into Jupiter’s orbit—is a three-generation family. Grandfather, father, and son must work together to survive and save the planet.
We first see Liu Qi (Chuxiao Qu) as a young child, discussing Jupiter with his father, Peiqiang (Jing Wu). 17 years later, he is a teenage rapscallion who cuts the power of the school to play hooky with his sister (Jin Mai Jaho). They do some black market trading for a pair of space suits in order to have a day on the icy wastelands of Beijing in a stolen land roving vehicle.
His character is certainly a type. He’s the devil may care rogue. The Han Solo type. His father is the altruistic hero type. Beyond this, the characters show little individualization. There are a handful of military types who traipse around with guns. There are a few other civilian characters who populate the frames. There is a Russian cosmonaut character that is kind of fun, who I believe drinks alcohol out of a CamelBak in his space suit.
At one point in the film, a character, in the middle of rapidly explaining a long shot plan, assigns characters nicknames, and he interrupts a character trying to introduce himself with a flippant “whatever.” The film itself seemingly does not aim to worry itself with interesting, dimensional characters. But it does put weight on the actors to translate their static characters into ones with backstory and emotional life. Despite the actors’ best efforts, these characters ultimately do not serve their emotional purposes.
The emotional beats in the film largely ring hollow. There is one instance, involving the automated voice of a vehicle, that is cleverly executed for emotional effect. But the character it references was not given enough depth and screentime for us to care about the implications of his actions.
Frant Gwo shows many Western film influences in his pursuit of a science fiction action extravaganza. The energy of the film has an Independence Day vibe. There is 2001-inspired imagery. The briefly-seen city underbelly reeks of Blade Runner. The premise of a doomed Earth takes a page out of many science fiction properties, but the idea of finding a new home in space is most reminiscent, in my mind, of Interstellar. There is some Gravity-light sequences of astronauts in space. Terminator is referenced by name as an homage.
The combination of these influences makes The Wandering Earth feel less fresh, but there is plenty of dynamic direction to breath life into the climactic sequences. There is good handheld camera work that allows the conflict to feel more intimate and personal. And there are a number of gorgeous landscape shots to juxtapose the intimacy with a sense of global importance.
But The Wandering Earth cannot escape its shortcomings. Moments meant to leave an impact simply fail to do so, leaving the world-in-peril plot to feel procedural. With a lengthy climax and resolution that encompasses the final 45 minutes, the film overstays its welcome. As impressive as the scope is, and as adept as the directing is, the experience of this science fiction event film is lacking.
The Wandering Earth: C+