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Planet in peril

Chinese blockbuster The Wandering Earth is a sci-fi spectacle with weak storytelling

Planet in peril

Wu Jing in The Wandering Earth (China Film Group)

Netflix users may have noticed a new Chinese sci-fi movie called The Wandering Earth pop up on their home page this month. While most Americans probably haven’t heard of the movie, it’s the year’s biggest film in China, where it grossed $693 million (plus an additional $7 million overseas). That makes it the second-highest-grossing non-English film in history following the 2017 hit Wolf Warrior 2, which I reviewed last year.

Loosely based on a novella by famed sci-fi author Liu Cixin, The Wandering Earth is China’s most ambitious foray into the world of space sci-fi. The film is set in the future as the sun is about to explode and natural disasters have devastated much of planet Earth. In order to save humanity, a new world government has built 10,000 rocket thrusters to move Earth out of the solar system and into the Alpha Centauri system. With Earth moving farther from the sun, the planet’s surface has turned into a frozen wasteland, and the remaining humans live in underground cities.

The plan is to use Jupiter’s gravitational pull to send Earth flying toward its new stellar orbit. Yet the plan goes awry as Jupiter’s gravitational spike causes severe earthquakes that damage many of the thrusters, and Earth falls into a collision course with Jupiter. To show what’s at stake, the movie focuses on one family: The father, Liu Peiqiang (played by Jing Wu), is an astronaut on a long-term mission in a space station controlled by a sentient computer reminiscent of HAL 9000 of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Back on Earth, his father-in-law raised Liu’s rebellious son, Liu Qi (Chuxiao Qu), and his adopted sister, Han Duoduo (Jin Mai Jaho), in the underground city of Beijing. When the catastrophe strikes, the three of them are soon swept up in an ambitious rescue plan to restart a failed thruster and save the world, while Liu Qi reconciles his anger over his father’s abandonment.

The visuals of the post-apocalyptic world with a looming Jupiter overhead is grandiose and stunning, a sign of how far Chinese filmmaking has come. Unlike Wolf Warrior 2, Wandering Earth cuts back on the blatant nationalism and instead pictures the world working together to fight a common threat. The movie’s theme of sacrificing for family and returning home also resonated with viewers since the movie came out during the Chinese New Year festival (a time when Chinese people return to their hometown to visit relatives), noted the China news website Radii. “In our culture, we can never part with our love of the homeland,” said director Frant Gwo in a press junket.  

China Film Group

A scene from The Wandering Earth (China Film Group)

Yet the film struggles from a lack of character development—many of the characters feel so expendable, it’s hard to care when they die. A complicated plot requires lots of exposition in an early voice-over. Like many of the films popular in China—such as the giant shark movie The Meg or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s SkyscraperWandering Earth chooses CGI action sequences over substantive storytelling, making the two-hour film feel longer than it really is. (Netflix has given the film, which includes scenes of violence and some bad language, a TV-MA rating.)

It’s interesting to imagine what types of creative films Chinese filmmakers could create if they weren’t hamstrung by the Chinese government’s demands to avoid anything remotely politically sensitive. Instead we have high-octane blockbusters like Wandering Earth, which has been endorsed by government officials.

In February, famed director Zhang Yimou’s film One Second, set during the Cultural Revolution, was withdrawn from the Berlin Film Festival. The film’s social media account claimed it was for “technical reasons,” but many believe the film was withdrawn for political reasons. When a foreign reporter asked Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying about the withdrawal, she responded: “You should ask the relevant department. But I know The Wandering Earth is a hit—I suggest you watch that.”

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‘I Am From Hong Kong’

In April, Frances Hui, a junior at Emerson College, penned a column in her school newspaper titled, “I Am From Hong Kong, Not China.” Her article, shared widely on social media, stirred a backlash among mainland Chinese students at the school, according to The Washington Post. One Chinese student even commented, “Whomever opposes my greatest China, no matter how far they are, must be executed.”