The Wandering Earth (Liú làng dì qiú)

China (2019) Dir. Frant Gwo

A few months ago, I reviewed a Chinese sci-fi film Last Sunrise, about the impending end of a solar reliant world due to the sun going out. Unbeknownst to me, China had made another sci-fi flick about the end of the world thanks to the sun although more people will be familiar with The Wandering Earth as it has been distributed internationally by Netflix.

It’s 2061 and the sun is on its last legs and ready to turn into a giant red ball of heat that will cause the earth to burn to a crisp. This has forced the nation of the world to form a United Earth Government, and the agreed solution to saving the human population is to construct enormous fusion powered thrusters to move the earth from its current solar system to the safer and distant Alpha Centauri.

Seventeen years later as Earth is passing by Jupiter a spike in its gravitational pull drags Earth off its course causing earthquakes and inclement weather conditions that disable some of the thrusters. A desperate military mission is launched to transport replacement lighter cores to the damaged thrusters but the closer the Earth is pulled towards Jupiter, the harder the journey becomes.

The Wandering Earth takes as its source the 2000 novel by Liu Cixin but with a number of changes to make the story more dramatic and to give Chinese special effects wizards a chance to show off their CGI skills. I’ve not read Cixin’s work but by all accounts, it is more of a tale debating extreme global political manipulation blended with moral and ecological philosophy and a call for worldwide unity.

Naturally, the futuristic setting practically demands something with a bit more pizzazz to it, hence the catastrophe of Jupiter’s errant gravitational pull interfering with the Earth’s trajectory to safety. As this is the major crisis point and forms the bulk of the film’s story, it is a bold move to essentially overhaul Cixin’s tale but Frant Gwo and his fellow writers seem to know what they were doing, and overloads on the action sequences.

However, this does mean a lot more content is being played out on the screen, resulting in a film that moves at a blistering pace for a 125-minute outing. Character development is therefore modest at best with little in the way of sufficient introduction for much of the main players, outside of the members of one family unit who fulfil the role of nominal protagonists.

At the start of the film, astronaut Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing) promises his young son Liu Qi he will soon return from his mission aboard a space station guiding the Earth’s journey. Seventeen years later, adult Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao), raised by his grandfather Han Zi’ang (Ng Man-tat) along with adopted sister Han Duoduo (Zhao Jinmai), believes his father broke that promise.

Their troubles begin with Liu Qi and Duoduo being arrested for stealing a truck using Zi’ang’s pass card and Zi’ang bailing them out when the earthquakes hit, allowing them to escape, saving half Chinese-half Australian Tim (Mike Sui) too. Fleeing in Zi’ang’s official vehicle the group are stop and the vehicle requisitioned by the military rescue team CN171-11 headed by Wang Lei (Li Guangjie) to transport a lighter core to its destination.

Meanwhile, in the space station the crew have been forced back into hibernation to protect them against Jupiter’s pull, with the control handed over to the onboard AI called MOSS. However, just as Peiqiang is about to be put to sleep he realises that MOSS has gone rogue and needs to be deactivated – except maybe MOSS isn’t working by its own volition after all.

So now, we have a 2001: A Space Odyssey scenario with the computer system running the show and the hapless human being forced to outsmart it to regain control. It is interesting to note that the space station does bear a resemblance to the one in Kubrick’s film which may or may not be accidental. In the battle between man and AI, we get a nod to another film, Gravity – Peiqiang and Russian colleague Makarov (Arkady Sharogradsky) are forced to go outside on a space walk that ends in tragedy.

If Frant Gwo achieves anything with this film it’s in delivering continuous high-octane excitement and tightly choreographed disaster sequences to keep audience riveted. The space walk sequence is particularly nail biting with some very close near misses through eschewing the usually slow motion floating for a pure rush of kinetic movement. Whilst many similar scenes on Earth feel a tad contrived this one is heart stopping.

China’s efforts on the CGI front have been a mixed bag so far but they are improving with the success rate here far greater than in other films, though the lesser quality moments do stand out. The visual world building however is terrific; the up-close rendering of the giant Jupiter is breathtakingly eerie. The stunt team also earned their wages as much as the SFX team both on the ground and in space.  

What stands out the most about this film is that it isn’t pro-China despite the main cast being Chinese, but pro-world, with every decision made and action taken being in the interest of the entire planet, and working together produces the best results. The fact remains however, the few are still governing the many but at least they are on the same page – for better or worse – which doesn’t stop those in power imposing their will on us because they can.

Had this been explored in greater depth The Wandering Earth might have been deeper, thought provoking and socially relevant like Last Sunrise, following the themes laid out in Cixin’s novel but as an action blockbuster it does its job well enough. It’s not short of action and over the top thrills which should suit those who find the rushed storytelling a little confusing and distracting.