Apparently this is China’s first science-fiction blockbuster film. Or at least that is what I have read on the internet. I’m not intimately familiar with Chinese cinema and its history despite being fairly knowledgeable of world cinema. It’s just that China doesn’t really make art that speaks to me or that seems all that relevant in the modern day (I would argue that USA and Japan have been the dominant forces in art/entertainment in the past 100 years).
I knew this supposed “fact” going into The Wandering Earth. Thus my expectations were low as I expected a lot of “bad”. Whether it was bad scripting, bad acting, bad editing, bad CGI, etc. And maybe that was a big factor that resulted in my joy with this film. While I acknowledge the many, many, MANY flaws that this film has… it also has a heart to it that is hard to find these days (it seems like the art/entertainment markets are flooded with things ranging from trash to mediocre, likely due to technological advancements making it easier and less expensive to create music, movies, video games, etc.)
The story line is quite simple: the Sun is going to explode and engulf the entire Solar System, destroying all life within it. Humans must work together to figure out a solution that will save mankind. What is this solution? Creating gigantic thrusters to steer the Earth out of the Solar System on an extremely long journey to the Alpha Centauri system. Maybe a bit unrealistic, but I can suspend my disbelief. After all, it’s not a documentary. A man leaves his children behind to become an astronaut on the space station that navigates Earth’s journey. His children leave the underground city into the harsh conditions of the surface many years after their father leaves them (there are many underground cities built adjacent to the engines that were built on Earth, since living conditions on the surface are not optimal). Earth is getting way too close to Jupiter and so an emergency rescue mission is initiated. If Earth does not steer away from Jupiter, Earth will be pulled into it’s gravitational field and crash into it’s massive surface.
While it is not incorporated anywhere near as masterfully as the greats of the genre (2001, Solaris, Stalker), the science-fiction here serves as the flower bed to the philosophical flowers that grow from it. The way the plot progresses, and the way in which characters interact with one another and interpret the world around them – it all comes back to the idea of “hope”. Whether it is the presence of hope or the lack of hope, The Wandering Earth examines what it is to be hopeful in times where hope should not exist. By virtue of this, the film also examines what it is like to lose hope and what that means for the individual. Ethical concepts such as sacrifice are also examined as well as the concept of unity (between family as well as between people of different backgrounds).
So what didn’t I like about it?
First, the film is not spoken in English and therefore I had to rely on the given English subtitles to understand what was being said. This is not inherently bad. Most of my favourite movies are not English-speaking. However, the subtitles here were often atrocious. Obviously, I don’t know what they were translating so I can’t comment on whether or not it was accurate to what was being said. All I know is that when I was reading the subtitles, there were dozens of times throughout the film where I was left either in a state of confusion if I did not understand what they meant, or (if I did understand what they intended to say) I found it funny how they messed up such a simple idea.
Second, the film often relies on trope-y Hollywood-style film-making. Action scenes are cut up too much, compromised of way too many shots in a way that is disorienting. The story at times borders on ridiculousness and the movie as a whole lacks a lot of depth (even though there is a lot of potential). The score is sometimes over-stated as the music unnecessarily overpowers specific scenes (the use of silence oft seems to not be considered).
Third, the visuals (cinematography and CGI) were quite lackluster and didn’t do much to add to the emotional aspect of the film. While it was not note-worthy, it also never really descended below the level of mediocrity (although the CGI was quite bad a few times).
Despite all of my hang ups with the film, it managed to be very entertaining, somewhat thought-provoking, and even emotionally affecting. While it can not be considered a masterpiece of science-fiction cinema, it is easily one of the best science-fiction films I have seen in recent memory (although competition for that title is scarce, at least when it comes to films that are strictly science-fiction).
7/10 – Good