The Wandering Earth Review
For decades now Hollywood has delighted in depicting humanity on the verge of extinction. Whether it’s giant asteroids, floods, global warming, global cooling or just good old plain nukes, it seems audiences can’t get enough of big screen global disasters. Usually it’s up to a plucky group of misfits or scientists to carry out a dangerous mission to try and save us all. Now China has well and truly upped the ante with their first ever big budget sci-fi blockbuster The Wandering Earth.
Not content with hurling asteroids at the planet it seems the sun itself is dying and will engulf the Earth in less than a hundred years and no team of oil rig workers is going to prevent that! Instead a more radical plan is devised. Ten thousand “Earth engines” are built in order to turn our planet into a giant vehicle capable of transporting its inhabitants to the safe haven of a galaxy which will take several thousand years to reach. This is the impressively large scale idea that has propelled The Wandering Earth to currently sit at third in the 2019 worldwide box office chart, beaten only by the Marvel behemoths Avengers: Endgame and Captain Marvel.
Based on Liu Cixin’s novella first published in 2000, The Wandering Earth has completely set the Chinese box office alight. A worldwide gross of just under $700 million, with nearly all of that made just in its home country alone. Now Netflix has dropped the movie without any real fanfare allowing everyone else a chance to see what all the fuss is about. Does this Asian cinematic juggernaut have what it takes to impress western audiences as well? The short answer is yes, for the most part, it does.
The film easily stands up against similar cinematic blockbuster fare such as The Day After Tomorrow, 2012 and just about every other Roland Emmerich movie featuring large scale CGI destruction. Considering this is only director Frant Gwo’s third feature film he has managed to bring this huge sprawling story to the screen in a mostly coherent and always entertaining way. There are several impressive action set pieces including an ascent up an abandoned skyscraper buried within the ice that now comprises Earths surface and an attempt to traverse the exterior of the huge space station that travels through space ahead of the planet helping it maintain its course.
Much has been made of the films visual effects and for a Chinese production they are impressive if not always quite on par with the quality we are used to from a Hollywood production. The previously mentioned space station is rendered very well, it tends to be some of the visuals out in the icy tundra of Earth that could do with a little polish. Personally I enjoyed the slightly video game-like effects. They gave the film a comic book like feel and reminded me of Pacific Rim in a sort of Saturday morning cartoon way. Special effects giants Weta, famous for Lord of the Rings and Avatar provided the exoskeleton survival suits worn by the heroes as they race against time to reignite the giant engines and prevent Earth from smashing headlong into Jupiter and thus causing the extinction of mankind.
The Wandering Earth isn’t without its problems. The main one being the we’ve pretty much seen it all before. The film is very derivative of other sci-fi epics. As well as the Roland Emmerich movies I’ve previously mentioned you can easily spot elements of Armageddon, Deep Impact, The Core, Gravity, 2001 and Interstellar. This does lend an air of familiarity to proceedings although I’d argue that there are plenty of other films just as guilty of this. One trope that could well do with being retired is the sentient robot that controls a spaceship or station and always has their own secret agenda. HAL has a lot to answer for in that regard (and has never been bettered).
There are times when a Michael Bay aesthetic is employed and we are simply overloaded with large explosions and frenetic editing that can get very confusing. I know Bay’s movies are very popular in China but hopefully their future productions can use someone a little less bombastic as a guide. Another issue is that the lead characters just aren’t very likeable and pretty much everyone else is a barely sketched in stereotype. The main protagonist Liu Qi blames his father (wrongly) for the death of his mother. His father Liu Peiqiang happens to be the pilot of the space station leading the voyage across the galaxy. Liu Qi seems to be constantly angry and it is very hard to relate to, or indeed even like, him. His adopted sister Han Duoduo comes off even worse as she basically just gets to cry, scream and be constantly in peril. Comic relief comes in the form of Tim, a half Chinese- half Western character who sometimes acts like he’s wandered in from a different film, possibly even an anime. Chinese humour can sometimes be a bit broad for Western audiences and how much you enjoy the humour in The Wandering Earth will probably depend on how funny you find gags involving vomit filled space helmets. Personally I quite liked the more light hearted moments but they do tend to undercut some oft he more dramatic scenes.
Noticeably absent was the usual Chinese propaganda that has infiltrated most of their recent fare. Certainly the film centres on mostly Chinese characters but this is hardly any different to an American film featuring nearly all Americans. No it’s more the fact that the Wandering Earth project is a global effort and there is no mention of the Chinese government at all. I suspect this may be a deliberate effort to make the film more palatable to a worldwide audience. During the films climax it becomes essential for all the nations on Earth to work together. Except America. They are conspicuously not mentioned at all which in todays political climate is probably not surprising.
Chinese films are often accused of being emotionally manipulative and this is no exception. Slow motion flashbacks during poignant death scenes combine with melancholy piano notes to tell us exactly what we should be feeling at these points. Personally I found this no different to something like Armageddon, a film I kept being reminded of especially in the films third act.
So it seems China is just as capable of providing big budget, poorly characterised, special effects driven spectacle just as well as Hollywood is. If you are a fan of any of the other movies I’ve mentioned then I would definitely recommend giving The Wandering Earth a watch. It’s certainly not a subtle film. The ending requires several different nations to unite to give one big final push (and I do mean a literal push). Ultimately though it’s central message is one of hope and certainly something we should be aspiring to in these troubled times. If that’s all a bit too heavy for you then just sit back and enjoy the eye-candy. In that regard The Wandering Earth delivers in spades.
The Wandering Earth is available to watch on Netflix.