Review: Was China’s “Shanghai Fortress” Really That Bad?

After Chinese netizens lambasted " Shanghai Fortress," Netflix has given the world a chance to comment this latest Chinese foray into scifi.

By , 15 Sep 19 00:01 GMT
Courtesy of Netflix.

Following The Wandering Earth‘s success earlier this year, Chinese moviegoers had high hopes for homegrown sci-fi films—until Shanghai Fortress dashed them with a massive box office flop. With an embarrassing three out of ten rating on Chinese movie review site Douban, and comments decrying its poor plot and even worse acting, Shanghai Fortress did so badly that director Teng Huatao even issued an apology. One netizen‘s comments aptly symbolize China’s dashed hopes: “The Wandering Earth was the start of Chinese sci-fi’s dynasty, but Shanghai Fortress is its ending.”

Now, as the film arrives on Netflix, global audiences will get a chance to judge whether Shanghai Fortress was really that bad.

In Shanghai Fortress, Chinese astronauts (also known as taikonauts) discover a new material called xianteng, which quickly replaces coal and oil as Earth’s main energy source. However, it turns out xianteng was actually stolen from aliens, who arrive on Earth with motherships. The aliens wipe out major global population centers, leaving only Shanghai standing behind a forcefield powered by xianteng. Xianteng is an unstable energy source, so the forcefield occasionally falters and lets a few aliens in to ravage the metropolis.

We’re not actually sure which branch of the People’s Liberation Army defends Shanghai in the film, but their snazzy Air Force-style uniforms suggests that this is the Chinese Space Force. Military officer Lin Lan (Shu Qi) is tasked with helping to defend the city, along with a small squad of pilots including Jiang Yang (Lu Han). A United Nations delegation seems to lead the whole effort, despite the fact that the UN would likely have been wiped out already.

Courtesy of Netflix.

More Plot Holes Than There Are People in China

Shanghai Fortress opens with considerable energy: aliens slip through a crack in the forcefield, and Chinese forces fight the aliens both on the streets of Shanghai, and in the sky with remote-piloted drones from a command center. The actual fight sequence, despite drowning in more CGI than a Chinese banquet drowns in baijiu, is actually quite action-packed, and does a great job of framing the rest of the story and characters to follow.

However, Shanghai Fortress‘ plot quickly descends into the realm of absurdity. While ostensibly a military-themed movie, none of the characters have any semblance of military bearing. Instead of living in military barracks, all the members of Jiang Yang’s squad seem to be living in a townhouse, resembling a college dorm more than a “fortress” that you’d expect in an active combat zone. The civilians of Shanghai also seem unrealistically cheerful as they go on with their daily lives, partying at nightclubs and eating noodles at restaurants while violent aliens attack on the regular. Perhaps director Teng Huatao would have done well to visit a real war zone like Iraq or Syria before shooting Shanghai Fortress.

Meanwhile, we learn that Jiang Yang has had a crush on Lin Lan since his time in military training (where Lin Lan was his instructor). Emmanuel Macron energy aside, Jiang Yang’s crush on Lin Lan reflects both his youthful naivety and Teng Huatao’s complete lack of understanding of military decorum (military officers aren’t allowed to fraternize with soldiers under their command). Most unforgivably, this silly infatuation adds nothing to the plot at all.

Even if we were to evaluate Shanghai Fortress on the basis of a romance movie (since the movie came out close to Chinese Valentine’s Day, Qixi Day), it would fall flat as well⁠. There’s no indication as to how the romance developed, short of a daily text exchange where Jiang Yang asks Lin Lan if his performance was good, and Lin Lan replying back “not bad, good night.” Even High School Musical had a better love story.

Ironically, when Chinese netizens learned The Wandering Earth was going to feature Wolf Warrior star Wu Jing, they prayed that Wandering Earth would not turn into a “sci-fi Wolf Warrior.” Between the weak plot and unnecessary romance between Lin Lan and Jiang Yang, we think Shanghai Fortress fits the moniker of “sci-fi Wolf Warrior” much better.

Even as aliens attack, Shanghainese can’t stop going to nightclubs (Courtesy of Netflix).

Room For Redemption

Still, it’s unfair to expect every sci-fi movie in China to be a cultural showcase for the world. After all, Hollywood still produces plenty of mediocre movies where aliens attack American cities, whether it’s Independence Day: Resurgence or Battle: Los Angeles. It’s only fair that the Chinese movie industry strikes back with its own version of these films.

To its credit, Shanghai Fortress has some redeeming points⁠. As The Wandering Earth did, Shanghai Fortress once again places China in the “savior of the world” role that the US usually claims on screen. Shu Qi’s acting is as good as it could have been given the movie’s constraints, and makes Lin Lan come off authentically as a cool-headed military commander. Supporting actress Sun Jialing also makes a great breakout performance as Jiang Yang’s fellow squad mate Yiyi, although her acting skills may be better applied to more typical romance dramas than a military-centric sci-fi movie.

One also has to give credit to the film’s CGI team for making some pretty good on-screen depictions of Shanghai being blown up by aliens (we’re pretty tired of only seeing American cities getting blown up). Indeed, the few positive comments on Douban about Shanghai Fortress mention the great special effects.

In that sense, while Shanghai Fortress is not likely to win any awards, it’s adequate if you’re looking for brainless entertainment. After all, studios in the US have invested hundreds of millions into franchises like Transformers, which aren’t exactly known for gripping drama or quality acting.  Apparently there’s still room in modern cinemas for so-called lan pian (烂片, or “crappy movies”), as long as they offer big explosions and recognizable stars.

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Shanghai Fortress (Chinese: 上海堡垒)—Chinese. Dialog in Mandarin Chinese. Directed by Teng Huatao. First released August 9, 2019. Running time 1 hour 47 minutes. Starring Shu Qi and Lu Han. 

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