Review: “The Wandering Earth” Is China’s First Breathtaking Sci-Fi Success

Frant Gwo blends sci-fi with apocalypse extravaganza in the film based on Liu Cixin’s eponymous short story.

By , 6 Feb 19 23:41 GMT

The Wandering Earth is China’s biggest sci-fi flick to date. Directed by Frant Gwo of My Old Classmate and starring Wu Jing of Wolf Warrior 1 and 2, The Wandering Earth was one of the most anticipated films of 2019. The film is based on a short story by Liu Cixin, whose flagship work The Three Body Problem was originally supposed to receive the cinematic treatment before production issues shelved the movie.

The Wandering Earth was released over Chinese New Year, one of the biggest weeks for the Chinese box office, when millions of workers spend a week off with their families.

The film is set in a future Earth, whose inhabitants prepare to escape from the solar system as the sun expands into a red giant phase, threatening to engulf Earth in flames. As the expanding sun changes the climate of the Earth, the governments of the world unite under the leadership of the UN Security Council to build massive engines to propel the planet out of the solar system and towards nearby Proxima Centauri. At the same time, the residents of Earth move to underground cities for the thousands-year-long transit.

However, just as the Earth begins on its journey across the galaxy, it gets trapped in the gravity well of Jupiter — after which it’s up to Wu Jing’s character Liu Peiqiang, his father, his, son, his adopted daughter, and a number of Chinese soldiers and scientists, to save the world.

Image courtesy of Douban.

Chinese Anticipation and “Sci-Fi Wolf Warriors”

Ahead of The Wandering Earth’s cinematic release, Chinese movie review site Douban was abuzz with discussion, highlighting the level of anticipation that Chinese moviegoers had for the film.

However, Chinese viewers brought a critical eye to the film. An early trailer featured Wu Jing bantering with a Russian cosmonaut who reminded him that Russia built the first space station, only to be pointed to a “Made in China” sticker on the space station they’re currently in — suggesting that The Wandering Earth might carry significant nationalistic undertones. One Chinese netizen was especially worried that The Wandering Earth might turn into a “sci-fi Wolf Warrior” (though, perhaps sarcastically); another joked that the theme of the film might be “those who challenge Earth have no safe place to hide” (a play on the ending of Wolf Warrior, where Wu Jing’s character declares “those who challenge China have no safe place to hide”).

Image courtesy of Douban.

A Chinese Film That Stands Up to Hollywood

Facetious online commentary aside, in our view The Wandering Earth is a production that rivals its peers from Hollywood. Perhaps it was Frant Gwo’s directorial intervention that prevented The Wandering Earth from becoming too much of a “hoo-rah China” film, but the actual end result was hardly jingoistic compared to its trailers — instead the film made for a breathtaking sci-fi flick.

On a cinematic front, as a sci-fi film The Wandering Earth unabashedly uses CGI to create fantastical landscapes — ranging from Shanghai’s landmark buildings engulfed by glaciers, to a “new” Beijing built on top of the ruins of 21st-century Beijing. While we have criticised excessive CGi usage in previous Chinese films such as Sky Hunter, this technique is at home in a high-production sci-fi film — and the quality of the CGI rivals that of American peers like Interstellar.

Image courtesy of Douban.

Saving The World, With Chinese Characteristics

Of course, being a Chinese-made film, The Wandering Earth still carries a more Chinese bent than an equivalent Hollywood film would.

For starters, Americans make no appearance in the entire film, though the US is still a member of the Earth government’s leadership; even American actor Mike Sui plays an Australian-Chinese worker. Perhaps this is inspired by the fact that since 2016, America has threatened to or actually withdrawn from a number of international agreements, and has demanded her allies pay for US troop presence. Maybe in an not-so-farfetched future, America would demand that the world pay for American scientists to save the world — and the world simply decided not to pay.

More prominently though, one scene suggests that Shanghai was the host of the 2044 Olympics and, of course, the fact that it’s the Chinese military alongside Chinese scientists and citizens who lead the effort to save the world draws parallels to the numerous Hollywood disaster flicks where it’s Americans who save the world from certain destruction (i.e., Battleship, The Day After Tomorrow, World War Z). Amusingly, one commentator on Douban addressed this Hollywood trope directly, stating that if Hollywood had purchased the rights to The Wandering Earth, it would “become a propaganda flick for the US Marines.”

As it turns out, The Wandering Earth still carries hints of Chinese propaganda — after all, the film is foremost meant to appeal to audiences in mainland China. However, the film takes a less jingoistic approach to making China look good, especially compared to Operation Red Sea and Sky Hunter. The Wandering Earth champions Chinese heroes no more than Hollywood movies champion American might — making the film one of China’s best forays into building soft power to date. By focusing on making a great movie first and foremost, while only hinting at Chinese greatness, Frant Gwo can ensure that international audiences will actually appreciate the film and might leave with a more positive view of China afterwards.

It was also refreshing to see other countries playing a part alongside China — Russian, French, Indian, and Indonesian crews also make an appearance in The Wandering Earth. Ultimately, in contrast to American apocalypse flicks where Americans seem to save the world unilaterally, people from different countries come together to save the world — and multilateral consensus is required throughout the film, reflecting a message that the Chinese government has been pushing in real world affairs.

Everything considered, The Wandering Earth is not just one of China’s best movies of 2019, it could make a running for one of the world’s best movies of 2019. The film’s timely commentary on the need for world governments to unite against planetary threats, be they climate change or an expanding sun, is especially relevant in a world where certain leaders continue to deny the existence of climate change.

However, despite a US$30 million opening day box office, and a 8.4/10 rating on Douban, Chinese netizens will still find things to critique (albeit facetiously). One of the top-ranked comments on Douban bemoans the fact  that “even though the sun is about to die, and the Earth is about to wander, our school uniforms [in the underground cities] are still ugly.”

The Wandering Earth (Chinese: 流浪地球)China. Directed by Frant Gwo. First released February 2019. Running time 125 mins. Starring Wu Jing, Qu Chuxiao, Li Guangjie, Ng Man-tat, Zhao Jinmai, and Mike Sui.

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