A film of just disaster clichés is empty, but a film that tries to fill that void with sentimentality is actively annoying.
The much-anticipated sci-fi blockbuster The Wandering Earth (流浪地球 liúlàng dìqiú) premiered on February 5, the first day of the Lunar New Year, to immense commercial success, bringing in a reported $298 million for its opening weekend, which puts it on the way to surpassing Wolf Warrior 2 (2017) as the highest-grossing Chinese film of all time. This is in no small part thanks to endorsements from China’s higher ups, like foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying, who said, “I know the hottest movie now is The Wandering Earth, I don’t know if you have watched or not, I’d recommend it.”
But beyond the praise and some cool visuals and oversized CGI, The Wandering Earth has problems, namely: disaster movie tropes, overplayed sentimentalism, and graceless nationalism.
An adaption of Liu Cixin’s 2000 sci-fi novella, The Wandering Earth envisions humanity’s futuristic escape out of the solar system in full cinematic glory. The earth is equipped with thousands of fusion-powered propellers that push it away from the expanding Sun. Human civilization now crowds in underground cities beneath the Earth’s frozen surface, governed by a faceless United Earth Government that broadcasts in French. Though the premise is intriguing — even if scientifically flawed — the story degenerates into a formulaic remake of Hollywood disaster films, jam-packed with banal action scenes and predictable plot twists. The film is driven by its dei ex machina as much as Earth is by its giant propellers — utterly prone to nihility otherwise. But The Wandering Earth’s status as China’s first big-budget sci-fi effort saves it from the scathing rejection that its precursors received (think: Roland Emmerich’s disaster films).
A film of just disaster clichés is empty, but a film that tries to fill that void with sentimentality is actively annoying. Although an emphasis on pathos is a defining trait of Asian cinema, The Wandering Earth took far too much liberty in wedging melodramatic clips between fast-paced action scenes. The flashbacks of protagonist Liu Qi’s childhood are a refreshing distraction from chase and rescue scenes at first, but soon grow to be a short film of their own, considering the frequency and lengths at which they appear. Contrived backstories, tearful monologues, drawn-out deaths for nameless side characters all succeed in stealing screen time better served for plot transitions. Perhaps the mawkish and heavy-handed attempts at wringing emotion out of the viewer is an attempt to hide the fact that the characters themselves are hollow and one-dimensional.
The lack of finesse in storytelling is painfully magnified with the clumsy insertion of Chinese nationalism into the film. Elements of Chinese pride are so conspicuously embedded throughout The Wandering Earth that the film comes off as an awkward, incoherent blend of Hollywood sci-fi and Chinese New Year publicity. Though this film depicts a multinational world, it includes foreigners at the expense of their fair portrayal. As China becomes the de facto leader of the United Earth, other countries must fulfill their roles as deserters, cowards, and fools. Even Liu Peiqiang’s Russian best friend and the biracial Tim, who identifies as Chinese, cannot escape their fates as comedic relief (Tim is played by Mike Sui, who first found fame making viral videos on Chinese internet). In addition, there is a subtle jab at the non-Chinese’s constant whine to return home in times of crisis, when the Chinese themselves are fighting their extraordinary homesickness (especially around Lunar New Year) to save Earth, because evidently no one else can.
What’s interesting about China’s approach to world leadership is the rallying of the human race as a collective, and the emphasis on collaborative efforts instead of the one-man heroism that Western films have copyrighted since the birth of cinema. Not to say that there isn’t a fair amount of spotlight sacrifices in The Wandering Earth, but they seem more for the sake of nauseating sentimentalism than for typical American individualism. In the climax, where multinational workers cooperate to rectify a failed propeller engine, one begins to get a taste of the film’s underlying dictum: China’s bravery and perseverance will bring about a global unity never known to mankind before — we’re all in this together. Thank you, China.