At the same time that Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame have been dominating the box office, China came out with a mega-blockbuster of their own. Now the third-grossing movie of the year as well as China’s second biggest movie of all time, The Wandering Earth is the country’s first full-scale science fiction epic. Part interstellar spectacular, part disaster movie, it’s a monumental achievement. It makes other films of similar scale look tame by comparison.
Based on the Liu Cixin novella of the same name, The Wandering Earth is set in a future where our Sun is dying. In a grand attempt to save human civilization, the governments of the planet come together to form a plan to move Earth to a new solar system. Thousands of enormous thrusters are built across the planet to propel Earth through space, along with a space station out in front to help navigate the journey. Due to the planetary thrusters stopping Earth’s rotation, as well as most of the surface becoming frozen after moving away from the Sun, the surviving humans are forced to live in vast underground cities.
The film is certainly heavy on the exposition, but after a large dump of information at the start, the details and mechanics of how exactly everything works are set to a need-to-know basis. There are obviously a ton of questions that arise when you stop to think about the concept of using Earth as a literal spaceship, but the film manages to explain away most things well enough. By the time the plot gets rolling and the action kicks in, you won’t care too much anyway.
It’s the Chinese New Year, and a young man named Liu Qi (Chuxiao Qu) has a dream of getting to Earth’s surface so he can see the sky. His father, Liu Peiqiang (Jing Wu), is an astronaut who was forced to leave his family with their grandfather (Man-Tat Ng) to work at the space station navigating the planet, telling his son that he can always see him as a star if he looks up. But of course, there are no stars to see when you live underground. Bringing along his adopted sister, Han Duoduo (Jin Mai Jaho), Liu Qi steals his grandfather’s credentials so that he can get to the surface. Grandpa was a trucker, one of the only occupations where you work above ground, hauling equipment to and from the planetary thrusters.
At first, The Wandering Earth comes across as a sci-fi adventure movie of sorts. There’s a bit of fun world building going on as the film shows what life is like in the underground cities, what advanced technologies exist in this future, and how it all works. There’s a bouncy light-heartedness to it, but that all takes a drastic turn. As Earth passes by Jupiter, the gas giant’s gravitational pull begins causing mass devastation. Enormous earthquakes break out across the globe and disable numerous thrusters, pulling Earth into a catastrophic collision course with the other planet. It turns into a full-blown disaster movie, one of the biggest and most thrilling I’ve ever seen.
This is a very special effects-heavy film, and for most of it to look as good as it does is mighty impressive. The visuals are jaw-dropping. Immaculate CG work as well as plenty of practical effects, notably its sets, are what make The Wandering Earth one of the most visually stunning films to date, and it’s obvious that it enjoys throwing around the weight of its production and budget. It’s spectacular looking and it knows it. Shots of the sky as Jupiter grows nearer are downright beautiful, and the cinematography provided by Michael Liu continuously does a great job of showcasing the scale of it all with large zoom ins and outs.
With its large scope and numerous characters, the film reminds me a lot of American-made blockbusters like Independence Day and Armageddon. The best disaster movies speak to the strength of the human spirit; of perseverance and bravery in the face of calamity. Wandering Earth is packed with epic moments of heroism and outstanding acts of courage – it’s overly dramatic to the point of cheesiness at times, but isn’t that part of the fun of movies like this? Almost every character, even minor ones, gets an emotional speech before their death (it quickly becomes apparent that no character is safe), complete with a rousing musical score, and that’s just the kind of flick this is, and it’s all the better for embracing that.
Liu Qi, his sister, and his grandfather survive the initial chaos of the looming catastrophe, but are unable to get back home. Their truck is requisitioned for a rescue mission by a group of soldiers; they’re sent out to transport an engine component to the nearest thruster in order to help repair it. They pick up several more survivors along the way, creating a ragtag group of people who suddenly find themselves thrust into a dangerous job that they could never have prepared for. Every character has their courageous moments and each are defined by their acts of bravery against dire odds, but there’s not much to them beyond that. No character is particularly interesting, and their lack of personality turns them into pretty bland people. Thankfully, the spectacle always shows back up in time to distract you before it gets boring.
The Wandering Earth isn’t especially deep, but it’s an explosive achievement of filmmaking. It’s one of the better looking blockbusters in recent memory, and its message of unity against guaranteed disaster is so sincere that you can’t help but feel empowered by it. The film repeatedly ups the stakes and backs its characters into corners, and it does it so compellingly that it becomes edge-of-year-seat suspenseful. How exactly are they going to turn things around? It’s what you’ll keep asking yourself, and the script takes some surprising and exciting twists and turns that’ll keep you on your toes. There’s something for everyone here; Wandering Earth takes elements from science fiction thrillers & adventures, family dramas, and booming disaster epics. It’s well worth the watch.
4 / 5 Stars
The Wandering Earth is now streaming on Netflix.