Space Sweepers

Space Sweepers (2021)
★★★ / ★★★★

Our heroes are the kind of good guys who have become so desperate for money, they decide to make a deal with terrorists: two million dollars in exchange for an android named Dorothy, donning the appearance of a child (Park Ye-rin), that contains a hydrogen bomb. Jo Sung-hee’s “Space Sweepers” is quirky, funny, exciting, thrilling, and convincingly international—appropriate because the story takes place in 2092 when Earth is nearly uninhabitable and opportunities are so scant that people of all color, creed, and ethnicity must live together in communities along the planet’s orbit and find work in outer space. Languages spoken here are no fewer than six. (I counted.) I admired this film for its creativity, vivacity, and willingness to experiment.

Although the story is about the elites yet again attempting to solidify their place in the pecking order, which comes in the form of a CEO named James Sullivan (Richard Armitage) only allowing the rich to emigrate from dying Earth to the new, paradise-like, and very private residential orbiting community, it is rarely about the message. The reason is because capturing the spirit of a space western is of utmost priority. Sure, we encounter flashy dogfights in space, eye-popping last-minute saves, and the occasional forced humor that comes with the territory. But notice how detailed it is when it comes to its characters. We learn about who they are, where they come from, and where it is they want to be. They have different goals, but we are made to understand why they had to learn to work together. Notice I wrote “had.” I enjoyed that the screenplay by Yoon Seung-min, Yoo-kang Neo-ae, and Jo eliminates the unnecessary meeting of a motley crew and their growing pains. This is no origins story.

They just are. We are dropped in the middle of their partnership and we must learn about their dynamics: who is closer to whom, whether they are more like close friends or family, which of them possesses an appearance that is most deceiving and how that can be used as an advantage when the crew are at odds, who is the funniest at first glance versus who is low-key funny. Tae-ho (Song Joong-ki), Captain Jang (Kim Tae-ri), Tiger Park (Jin Seon-kyu), and Bubs (voiced by Yo Hae-jin) may be waste collectors by trade, but they are teeming with personality, together or apart. Knowing how space westerns usually go, I was surprised that I found myself worrying about the fates of the characters when events turn rather grim. I cared for them as people, and I wanted to see them reach their individual and collective goals.

Having said that, the villain leaves a lot to be desired. Armitage is such a talented performer that it is all the more astounding that he isn’t given very much to do other than to look stern and exercise his resounding deep voice. Sullivan wishes to commit mass genocide. Yet he is reduced to a man wearing a white suit who occasionally gets large, red, CGI veins on his neck when undergoing severe stress. His priority is to get his hands on Dorothy.

At some point, I wondered if critical information were cut in the editing room. Yes, we see Sullivan getting a brain scan. But his disease is neither directly mentioned nor explained in addition to relating that aspect of himself to his wicked plans of killing billions of people. He could have been a Darth Vader without the mask and cape—a case can be made that that is far more sinister because a person like Sullivan could show himself on television (or hologram since the film set in the future) and spout disingenuous speeches about saving the earth, the animals, and all the people in it. When in reality, he cares only for those who belong within his social class because he believes they possess superior morality than that of the working class.

Despite a lackluster villain, the heroes outshine and there are more than enough fresh choices to warrant a solid recommendation. Here is what I loved most: I mentioned earlier that the screenplay makes a point of showing our four central protagonists’ histories. These are done in quick flashbacks with narration. And yet I could see the potential of every single one being a standalone film. These garbage (“space debris”) collectors intrigued me. Give this a go.

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