The Wandering Earth (2019)


One of the major backups for major Hollywood studios seeing less and less financial return on large blockbusters has had for awhile now is China.  While it is really hard to say that the Transformers movies underperformed in U.S. theaters, the truth is that they and many other effects-laden money pits often are so expensive to make that even the obscene hundreds of millions they make in the domestic box office are not enough to turn a profit.

Thus, they turn to foreign markets.  The advantage of many of these movies (especially many of the recent ones starring Dwayne Johnson) is that they are not dialogue heavy, and what does need to be translated is not as heavily contextual as to cause problems.  It doesn't hurt that often the movies are altered for the Chinese market to make them even more universally acceptable.  The characters are already two-dimensional, the movies hollow spectacles, and so it is perfect for light entertainment fir a non-English speaking audience.

Understandably, although Chinese versions of the movies are also altered for content that their ruling communist party may have objections to, a major concern pops up that would concern any country: what about our own movie industry?  Political leanings aside the People's Republic of China has had a notable industry at least equal to that of Hollywood, and many of their best films are largely devoid of any blatant politics.  It's as diverse, entertaining and artful as you would expect from a country of its history and size, made even more diverse by the fact that Hong Kong continues to often be a completely separate film industry onto itself.  Thus, the PROC, to protect its own industry from being overrun by Western films, has taken steps to make sure a major percentage of films that are released are made at home.

All well and good, but the fact that people crowd into theaters to see large machines punch each other (or The Rock reboot The Towering Inferno) means that there is an audience for more than fantasy films and period dramas.  In fact, it had already been tried; a movie called Empire of the Deep, featuring an international cast and largely funded by Chinese millionaire Jon Jiang, has been in production forever an doesn't appear as if it is ever going to see the light of day.  It has blown a budget the equivalent of many Hollywood films.  Instead of getting bogged down in the same type of situation The Wandering Earth instead adapted an existing short story by Cixin Liu and, after considering using an American director, settled on Frant Gwo.  Instead of being tied up with foreign investment or oligarchs, it instead managed to become the first major science fiction made and released in China.

It has also been successful beyond all expectations, doing numbers that Hollywood would make Hollywood jealous.  It has proven that China can make this type of movie and make it profitable.  Of course, since we are already inundated with movies of its type in the United States, it barely made back a day's worth a Marvel film in the limited showings it had here, and was quietly released on Netflix.

Liu Peiqang (Jing Wu) is one of several engineers chose to work on the International Space Station Navigational Platform.  The sun is beginning to expand and will engulf the Earth within a century, and major disrupt the rest of the solar system in 300 years.  The governments of Earth put aside their differences and form the United Earth Government, or UEG, and come up with an ambitious plan: use a series of engines to push the Earth out of its orbit, use Jupiter as gravity assist to help escape the solar system, and then embark on a 2500-year journey to park itself in orbit around one of the stars in the Centauri system.  The space station is meant to keep an eye out for dangers and help guide the planet to its new home.

3.5 billion people remain in cities located under the engines.  The survivors were chosen by lottery, with many dying on the surface as the Earth grew colder and many others when the equatorial engines stopped the world from spinning.  The main story begins 17 years after initially leaving orbit as the Earth comes within the orbit of Jupiter.  Liu Qi (Chuxiao Chu), Peiqang's son, and Qi's adopted sister Han Duoduo (Jin Mai Jaho) decide to go outside and have a look around using stolen thermal suits and a pass belonging to their grandfather Han Ziang (Man-Tat Ng), who is a transport driver.  Naturally that gets them all in trouble, but even more so when it turns out that the Earth is on the wrong trajectory and, instead of using Jupiter to slingshot out of the solar system, instead is on a collision course for our largest planet.

While Han Ziang attempts to get his grandchildren to a refugee center the transport is commandeered by Wang Lei (Guangjie Li) and his squad, as seismic disturbances have caused most of the engines to go out and, to escape Jupiter's gravity pull, they must be restarted using "lighter cores."  Between navigating the crumbling canyons of frozen cities and numerous other obstacles, it soon becomes apparent that their efforts may be in vain, until Liu Qi comes up with a risky idea.  Meanwhile, Liu Peiqang has problems of his own aboard the space station, as MOSS, the station's AI, has decided that the Earth is doomed and contingency plans must be implemented. 

The main problem I have with The Wandering Earth, as a movie, is that it is too much like its American counterparts.  From what I have heard about some objections in Hong Kong audiences about the film being too nationalistic I expected a bit more propaganda to enter it, but the main swipes it would have taken against the United States and oligarchical capitalism seem to have been left on the cutting room floor.  The U.S. is just one more government that has decided to cooperate in saving the world and, though the action takes place largely in China and Indonesia, there is no sense of China as a nation coming in to save the day, but rather of its citizens being willing to give up their lives for the greater good.  Communist countries have a history of trying to (in many times to much hilarity) outdo their Western counterparts in state sponsored architectural and artistic feats, but this wasn't one of those times.  I say all this because the movie may have been more entertaining if it had some strangely out-of-place party propaganda thrown in, as often with a movie like Armageddon awkward flag-waving patriotism just adds another layer of disbelief to the proceedings, but is often more interesting than the hollow story it is part of. 

That is what I found The Wandering Earth to be - hollow.  The only character I could care about was Peiqang Liu, as his rebellion against MOSS in order to (at least in his eyes) save humanity makes up a more interesting story than his son's, as he is often lost in an ensemble of interchangeable square-jawed heroes in mech suits.  It is frustrating that, at least in my eyes, every single decision Peiqang Liu makes is dead wrong and that the UEG in programming MOSS to instigate a backup plan makes much more sense than trying to fly a planet to another solar system in the first place.  I think it is also because Jing Wu is also one of the few big-name actors attached to the movie, and his skills are noticeable when compared to everyone else.  Chuxiao Qu is supposedly playing the protagonist, but is so bland and unremarkable that it is hard to care, especially when it becomes apparent early on that his plot armor is thicker than his thermal suit. 

Absolutely nothing happens throughout the film that is unpredictable.  People die heroically, there is conflict between family members, grand ideas to save the day come from unexpected places, and things go boom.  I personally don't find the effects to be as bad as some have said, but that doesn't mean there is anything that impressive.  This could have been any Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich film, as Frant Gwo brings no sense of style to the proceedings.  Something with this outrageous of a plot needs either a treatment like Paul Verhoeven gave Starship Troopers.  Even the parts that are supposed to have some sort of emotional impact (namely that family sacrifices that had to be made) fall flat because they are glossed over or stripped of any true context.

That brings me to my last problem, not as a movie, but as a story.  Supposedly (and for some reason left out of the movie) the original proposal that the United States came up with was to evacuate the elite and rich in spaceships with thirty-million dollar ticket prices.  Instead, the Chinese proposed to move the planet, saving more people.  The swipe against the U.S. from an international competitor (especially one that still nominally clings to some Marxist ideals) is expected, but the ultimate solution makes even less sense.  First, their would have been no reason, with nearly a century, to limit flights to the elite.  Those who live or die are ultimately chosen by lottery.  Also, since a one-world government is formed to deal with the problem, I'm sure they would have told us where to stuff it when it came to sending a few billionaires and implemented the same lottery system for who got on the ships.  With this system, and a number the number of ships that could be built in that time, surely the same amount of humans being saved by moving the planet could have been saved as well.  They have hibernation technology at this point, so supplies and resources are not the biggest concern.  It is also a major part of their plan B with the space station.

It may make for a good dystopian fantasy if handled correctly, with humanity attempting to survive two and a half millennia in underground cities and exploring how things evolve through generations of families and governments as they move toward their goal.  Instead, we are just stuck with a rote disaster film with some sci-fi trappings.  If this had been made here it would have been another flop included in a "reasons Hollywood is failing" listical.  My only hope is that maybe The Wandering Earth has opened the door for better directors and stories to come through.

The Wandering Earth (2019)
Time: 125 minutes
Starring: Jing Wu, Chuxiau Qu, Jin Mai Jaho, Man-Tat Ng, Mike Kai Sui, Guangjie Li
Director: Frant Gwo

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