Wandering Earth is currently the best-selling movie of 2019 – but you probably haven’t heard of it. The box office intake is almost entirely centralized to China itself – but due to the size of that market alone, it has become the second-most successful foreign language film of all time. Wandering Earth is part of an increasingly successful, yet self-contained, mainstream Chinese cinema.
This is noted as the first successful Chinese sci-fi blockbuster – but that doesn’t really mean much for artistic value. This film runs off pure, dumb energy like any other generic sci-fi spectacle piece – it simply happens to be Chinese this time.
Wandering Earth is absurd in its scope. The sun is beginning to enter the red giant phase, and our collective solution is to attach thrusters and push the entire planet somewhere else. Along the way, we attempt to use Jupiter’s gravitational pull to slingshot us through space, but there’s naturally a miscalculation that puts the planet on a direct trajectory into disintegrative doom.
In other words, this leans more on fiction than the science.
The film bounces between two locations. Astronaut Liu Peiqiang is aboard a space station that guides the planet, soon finding himself in combination 2001–Gravityland as he must dodge space debris and confront a killer A.I. Meanwhile, his family on Earth gets caught up in a rescue mission, which falls hard into the epic disaster genre, specifically recalling The Day After Tomorrow with its frozen metropolises. These bits are all painfully familiar, and I can’t decide whether it’s more rip-off or an attempt at pastiche for China’s first project of this scale.
Despite its rather lacking scientific basis, the film sure enjoys spending a lot of time trying to make sense of everything. Like Alita, this is a film that gets sidetracked explaining concepts that really don’t matter for its purpose. There are a few cool moments that would hopefully balance things out, but where Alita has a director who at least understands raw action spectacle, there’s not enough here. The only truly stand-out imagery from this film comes in the form of shots of Earth as it is pushed through space by its thousands of blue jets, leaving a trail in its wake.
The central concept is too nonsensical to really drive itself, and the characters are also lacking. Liu Peiqiang and his son Liu Qi have been separated for seventeen years, and their drive to reunite seems to serve as a central personal conflict. Qi is angry for a variety of reasons, but it all seems so shallow when the world itself is on the verge of evaporation. Qi has his grandfather and an adoptive sister along for the ride, but neither offers much besides familial relations – an idea that frequently pops up throughout the film as government propaganda encourages people to spend their last moments alive with their loved ones.
They are surrounded by characters who don’t do much but die – I get the feeling they were going for the group protagonist angle as typical of films from countries that try to push communist themes, but it makes for a rather bland cinematic experience. The one side character who stands out in any meaningful way is Tim, an Australian-Chinese man who serves as comic relief…who is implied to be a rapist. For comedic purposes.
If you’ve been eagerly awaiting the day where even more countries push out works like 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow, then Wandering Earth must be an exciting prospect. But all this really represents is a country with a big enough economy and population that it can create its own insular Hollywood – it will take a certain amount of time before they can push out a truly unique and international success. It’s a Hollywood disaster flick with a Chinese flavor – there might be some cultural differences in its message, but it’s not competent enough to really be saying much at all.