We’re living through a fascinating era of rapid change for the blockbuster movie model. America producers, eager to get their $200 million movies into the lucrative Chinese market, are increasingly looking for Chinese production partners, shooting in Chinese locations, and adding China-friendly characters and plotlines to American movies, even including extra scenes just for the Chinese cuts of films. But simultaneously, China and other countries are moving toward the blockbuster model themselves, creating homegrown films that don’t need to involve American partners at all.
And just as American films attempt to find paydays in foreign markets, foreign blockbusters are coming to America. The Wandering Earth, described as China’s first big-budget science fiction thriller, quietly made it onto screens at AMC theaters in North America this weekend, and it shows a new side of Chinese filmmaking — one focused toward futuristic spectacles rather than China’s traditionally grand, massive historical epics. At the same time, The Wandering Earth feels like a throwback to a few familiar eras of American filmmaking. While the film’s cast, setting, and tone are all Chinese, longtime science fiction fans are going to see a lot on the screen that reminds them of other movies, for better or worse.
The film, based on a short story by Three-Body Problem author Cixin Liu, lays out a crisis of unprecedented proportions: the sun has become unstable, and within a hundred years, it will expand to consume Earth. Within 300, the entire solar system will be gone. Earth’s governments rally and unite to face the problem, and come up with a novel solution: they speckle the planet with 10,000 gigantic jets, and blast it out of its orbit and off on a hundred-generation journey to a new home 4.2 light-years away. The idea is to use Jupiter’s gravitational well to pick up speed for the trip, but a malfunction of the Earth Engine system leaves the planet caught in Jupiter’s gravity, and gradually being pulled toward destruction. A frantic group of workers have to scramble to reactivate the jets and correct the Earth’s course.
The action takes place in two arenas simultaneously. On the Earth’s frigid surface, self-proclaimed genius Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao) and his younger adopted sister Han Duoduo (Zhao Jinmai), get roped into the rescue efforts after they run away from home. Han is just curious to see the planet’s surface — most of humanity now lives in crowded underground cities, and the surface is for workers only — but Liu Qi is nursing a deeper grudge against his astronaut father Liu Peiqiang (longtime martial-arts movie star Wu Jing) and grandfather (Ng Man-tat, whom Western audiences might recognize from Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer). When Liu Qi was a child, his father moved to a newly-built international space station, designed to move ahead of Earth as a guide and pathfinder. Now an adult, Liu Qi feels his father abandoned him, and wants to strike out independently.
Meanwhile, on the space station, Liu Peiqiang is ironically a day away from completing his 17-year tour of duty and returning to Earth and his family when the crisis hits. The station’s artificial intelligence, MOSS, insists on putting the station’s personnel in hibernation to save energy, but Liu Peiqiang realizes the computer has a secret agenda, and he and a Russian cosmonaut set out to defy it.
The entire space plot may feel suspiciously familiar to American audiences, who have a strong emotional touchstone when it comes to a calm-voiced computer in space telling a desperate astronaut that it can’t obey his orders, even when human lives are on the line, because it has orders of its own. MOSS even looks something like the HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey: it’s represented as a red light on a gimbled panel, like a single unblinking, judgmental red eye. But a good deal of Liu Peiqiang’s space adventure also plays out like a sequence from Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 Oscar-winner Gravity, with dizzying sequences of astronauts trying to navigate clouds of debris and find handholds on a treacherous moving station while tumbling through space.
Meanwhile, the Earthside half of the mission resembles nothing so much as the 2003 nonsense-thriller The Core, about a team trying to drill their way to the center of the Earth to set the planet’s core spinning again. Liu Qi and Han pick up a few distinctive allies along the way, including biracial Chinese-Australian gadabout Tim (viral video star Mike Sui), but mostly, the characters are drawn as blandly and broadly as in any American action movie, and a fair number of them get killed along the journey without ever having developed enough personality for audiences to feel the loss.
Pretty much any flaw The Wandering Earth can claim — flashy action scenes without much substance, a marked bent toward sticky sentimentality, an insistently pushy score that demands emotional response from the audience at every given moment — are familiar flaws from past blockbusters. Where the film really stands out, though, is in its eye for grandiose spectacle. Director Frant Gwo gives the film a surprising stateliness, especially in the scenes of the mobile Earth wandering the cosmos, wreathed in tiny blue jets that leave eerie space-contrails behind. His attention to detail is marvelous — in scenes where characters stand on Earth’s surface, contemplating Jupiter’s malicious beauty, the swirling colors of the Great Red Spot are clearly visible in reflections in their suit helmets.
No matter how familiar the plot beats feel, that level of attention not just to functional special effects, but to outright beauty, makes The Wandering Earth stand out. Not every CGI sequence is aesthetically impeccable — sequences like a vehicle chase through a frozen Shanghai sometimes look brittle and false. But everything having to do with Jupiter, Earth as seen from space, and the space station subplot is visually sumptuous. This is frequently a gorgeously rendered film, with an emphasis on intimidating space visits that will look tremendous on IMAX screens.
And while the constant attempts to flee the destructive power of changing weather have their own echoes in past films, from The Day After Tomorrow to 2012, Gwo mostly keeps the action tight and propulsive. The Wandering Earth is frequently breathless, though the action occasionally gets a little muddled in editing. At times, particularly on the surface scenes where everyone is wearing identical pressure suits, it can be easy to lose track of which character is where. It’s often easy to feel that Gwo cares more about the collective rescue project than about any individual character — potentially a value that will work better for Chinese audiences than American viewers, who are looking for a single standout hero to root for.
But the film’s biggest strengths are in its quieter moments, where Gwo takes the time to contemplate Jupiter’s gravity well slowly deepening its pull on Earth’s atmosphere, or Liu Qi staring up, awestruck, at the gas giant dwarfing his home. In those chilly sequences, the film calls back to an older tradition of slower science fiction, in epic-scale classics like 1951’s When Worlds Collide or 1956’s Forbidden Planet. The interludes are brief, but they’re a welcome respite from chase sequences and destruction.
The Wandering Earth gets pretty goofy at times, with jokes about Tim’s heritage, or Liu Qi’s inexperienced driving and overwhelming arrogance, or with high-speed banter over an impossibly long technical manual that no one has time to digest in the middle of an emergency. At times, the humor is even a little dry, as when MOSS responds to Liu Peiqiang’s repeated rebellions with a passive-aggressive “Will all violators stop contact immediately with Earth?” But Gwo finds time for majesty as well, and makes a point of considering the problem on a global scale, rather than just focusing on the few desperate strivers who’ve tied the Earth’s potential destruction into their own personal issues.
Much like the Russian space blockbuster Salyut-7 was a fascinating look into the cultural differences between American films and their Russian equivalents, The Wandering Earth feels like a telling illustration of the similarities and differences between Chinese and American values. Gwo’s film is full of images and moments that will be familiar to American audiences, and it has an equally familiar preoccupation with the importance of family connections, and the nobility of sacrifice. But it also puts a strong focus on global collective action, on the need for international cooperation, and for the will of the group over the will of the individual.
None of these things will be inherently alien to American viewers, who may experience The Wandering Earth as a best-of mash-up of past science fiction films, just with less-familiar faces in the lead roles. But as China gets into the action-blockbuster business, it’ll continue to be fascinating to see how the country brings its own distinctive voices and talents into a global market. The Wandering Earth feels like the same kind of projects American filmmakers are making — accessible, thrill-focused, and at least somewhat generic, in an attempt to go down easy with any audience. But there’s enough specific personality in it to point to a future of more nationally inflected blockbusters. Once every country is making would-be international crossovers, the strongest appeal may come from the most distinctive, personal visions with the most to say about the cultures they come from.