The out-of-this-world success of China’s first-ever sci-fi blockbuster, “The Wandering Earth,” proves that when it comes to watching special-effects extravaganzas in which stock characters scramble to intervene while the planet faces obliteration, it’s a small world after all. Director Frant Gwo’s adaptation of the 2000 novella by Liu Cixin is no genre classic, but its furious pace, spectacular visuals, and fanciful plot deliver decent escapist entertainment. After accumulating an astronomical $640 million-plus domestically — plus a tidy $5 million on limited North American screens — since Feb. 5, this display of capability from China’s commercial film sector was snapped up by Netflix for future release on the streaming giant’s platform.
A hyperactive hybrid of doomsday films ranging from ’50s classic “When Worlds Collide” to Michael Bay’s bombastic “Armageddon” and, most notably, Ishiro Honda’s 1962 Japanese space opera “Gorath,” “The Wandering Earth” is perhaps most striking for its lack of nationalism and propaganda. Soft diplomacy, at most, is the order of the day. Politicians, bureaucrats, and army brass are nowhere to be seen. There’s barely a Chinese flag in sight, nor any chest-beating about Chinese ingenuity and leadership.
Instead, what’s presented is a traditional tale of nations and people pulling together to save the planet, with heavy doses of guilt, sacrifice, and redemption from the human characters. With global conflict and division so prevalent today, these messages of hope and unity have undoubtedly struck an emotional chord in many viewers, created positive word-of-mouth, and made the film much more accessible for international audiences.
Viewers almost need a scorecard to keep up with a flood of information in the opening segments. In the near future, the sun is dying, leaving the freezing planet on the brink of destruction. What’s left of humanity is huddled in subterranean cities created with an eye-catching combination of steampunk, brutalist, and futurist influences by production designer Gao Ang. The United Earth Government, which is never seen and represented only by a French voice, has decided the only solution is to propel the planet to another galaxy 4.2 light years away. Everything depends on 10,000 giant rocket thrusters being kept alight for the 2,500-year journey.
Enter Liu Peiqiang, a widowed astronaut played with appropriate solemnity by “Wolf Warrior” series superstar Wu Jing, who is sent to a space station and tasked with navigating Earth’s path through the solar system, leaving behind young son Liu Qi and father-in-law Han Zi’ang (Ng Man-tat, “Shaolin Soccer”). In a nostalgic nod to Cold War days before the Sino-Soviet split, Liu’s best work buddy is likeable cosmonaut Makarov (Arkady Sharogradsky). (Oddly enough, almost the entire cast are given “special appearance by” or “guest starring” credits.)
Seventeen years later, Liu’s still in orbit, while Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao) has bcome an angry young man and self-proclaimed genius who blames his mother’s early death on his absent father. On the very day his dad is due to finish his stint and return home, Liu Qi and adopted teenage sister Duoduo (Zhao Jinmai) sneak away to see the frozen surface for the first time. As they’re taking in the spectacular sights of ice-covered Beijing, a major rocket thruster malfunction sends Earth into the gravitational pull of Jupiter. Unless a miracle occurs in the next 37 hours, it’s goodbye Earth.
The warp-speed screenplay, co-written by producer Gong Geer, finds Liu guiding operations from above while the youngsters join rescue team boss Wang Lei (Li Guangjie) and his crew down below to pull off the impossible. Just one of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles facing Liu is MOSS, a HAL 9000-like computer with a secret agenda. In one of the film’s standout scenes, Liu and Makarov execute Cirque du Soleil-worthy gymnastics on a dangerous space walk in defiance of their AI comrade-turned-monster.
The clinical setting and near-silence of Liu’s task is nicely contrasted with the noisy, hair-raising ride of Liu Qi, Duoduo, and obviously-doomed grandpa Han Zi’ang on Earth’s rapidly crumbling surface. Though everyone plays second fiddle to mostly-impressive CG effects, Zhang Yichi scores some fine comic moments as Yiyi, the rescue team’s nerdy and nervous tech guy. Disappointingly, female characters other than Duoduo barely factor into the story.
When death, destruction, and outpourings of emotion are set aside, we’re treated to some truly beautiful images of Jupiter’s swirling surface and wispy vapor trails surrounding Earth as it glides through the blackness of space. But these are merely momentary breathers in a tale that hurtles to more climaxes than it actually needs, easily forgiven on account of the film’s display of technical wizardry.
Costuming, art direction, and DP Michael Liu’s widescreen photography are top-class. Apart from a handful of shoddy effects along the way, all other technical work is excellent. As in so many tentpole spectaculars, a heavy-handed orchestral score unashamedly attempts to manipulate audience emotions at every opportunity — unnecessary, since the film’s loud-and-clear theme of collective human effort outweighing the actions of individuals hardly needs such underscoring to resonate with audiences.