The Wandering Earth (2019)
★★ / ★★★★
“The Wandering Earth” is China’s first full-blown space disaster flick extravaganza, but it is nothing special because it fails to offer a memorable element outside of visuals. It is a shame because the premise, based on Liu Cixin’s novella of the same name, is unique: Due to the expanding sun, humanity has decided to band together and create the most astounding technology to move Earth out of our solar system and toward another that is 4.2 lightyears away, a feat that is expected take around 10,000 generations to achieve. The template is ambitious, but the execution is as generic as it comes.
Right from the opening sequence, a whiff of melodrama can be detected. A father, Peipang (Wu Jing), must leave his four-year-old son, Qi (played by Qu Chuxaio as an adult), under the care of his father-in-law (Ng Man-tat) to work on a space station that would eventually help navigate the planet on its journey out of the current solar system toward a new one. Cue the longing looks, warm lighting, and syrupy score just in case viewers fail to appreciate the precious time about to be lost between father and son. Before we know it, the text reads, “17 Years Later.”
But perhaps there is plenty to be discovered about this duo after the time jump. That isn’t the case. This relationship is never given a chance to evolve in fruitful or meaningful ways. Qi is shown as angry toward his father for leaving and cries when his father’s life is eventually threatened. How are we supposed to care when their connection is never given the depth necessary so that we understand, with equal complexity and intensity, a. the turmoil raging within the son’s heart for having been abandoned and b. the astronaut’s sense of duty for mankind’s survival? They share not one genuine conversation. In fact, the dialogue is rooted upon two extremes: light humor early on in the picture and exclamation points when chaos ensues. Where is the humanity?
What results is a bore, beautiful to look at due to the stunning special and visual effects, particularly when Jupiter begins to absorb the Earth’s atmosphere which causes sudden changes in atmospheric pressure. Cue planes falling out of the sky and various skyscrapers on the dead, frozen landscape collapsing, causing all sorts of trouble for the inhabitants on the surface. The CGI overreaches at times, which makes some of the action come across as rather cartoonish, but the destruction is exaggerated enough that calamities lean toward eye-popping as opposed to laughable. I also enjoyed the overwhelming sound effects, especially when the cracking of glacial surface crescendos into full-blown collapse of all structures within the radius of about a mile.
Still, for a story set hundreds, if not thousands, of years into the future, the population lacks diversity—even if it does take place mostly in China. Although a different sub-genre, a space western picture as opposed to a space disaster movie, Jo Sung-hee’s “Space Sweepers” does it right: there is a collection of cultures within any specified location. In this film, I found it hard to believe that for a planet in which various cultures supposedly learned to work together and install engines over several continents (which, practically speaking, should all be uniform)—engines that could create a thrust so powerful, an entire planet could be moved, there remains to be a lack of amalgamation when it comes to ethnicities and languages. In other words, the picture fails to evince a convincing international feeling. In this way, it feels like a movie made in the 1990s, not in 3990s, or even 2055. I wager this movie’s age can be felt by 2030.
Regardless, I remain convinced that if the screenplay, in which seven writers are credited, had offered memorable characters who are written smart with uniquely fierce personalities combined with something genuine at stake outside of mankind’s possible extinction, the picture would have been terrific entertainment. But alas, we are provided a safe outing—expensive but dull.