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Friday, January 22, 2021

Movie Review: The Wandering Earth

by Guy Stewart

This isn’t a real review of The Wandering Earth, rather it’s my reaction to the 2019 movie made by China Film Group Corporation, the largest and most influential state-owned film enterprise in the People's Republic of China.

First of all, I don’t believe that there’s a new idea in the whole thing. While that’s hardly an indictment—

Americans recycle movies all the time, and sometimes, we don’t even recycle them, but entirely remake them: in the SF/F genre, “I am Legend” (3x); “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (4x); “King Kong” (4x); “A Christmas Carol” (9x, including once with ST:TNG’s Captain Picard as Scrooge!)

—it is a disappointment. Most movies I watch have at least something new. This one didn’t.

Bruce Bethke pointed out that the most obvious transplant was the “main point” of flying the Earth to another star is identical to Stanley Schmidt’s LIFEBOAT EARTH (1978). Schmidt included the fact that the thrust would cause all the oceans to slide to the “aft” side of the planet. The Wandering Earth has the oceans remain evenly distributed.

The movie also borrowed a few other well-known SF tropes including the glowing-red-eyed “evil” Artificial Intelligence from Clarke’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1978); underground cities most recently used in Kameron Hurley’s THE STARS ARE LEGION (2017) novel and in the more popular SILO series of Hugh Howey (2011); the “space ark with crew in suspended animation” first appeared in the 1933 classic, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (and was made into a spectacular move in 1951) and the extension of the idea by carrying embryos and seeds to restart Earth on another world or the "space ark" concept; the sun WILL eventually go nova, simply as it ages. It will not “all of a sudden” go nova like in the movie (for more on the life cycle of the sun: https://www.universetoday.com/18847/life-of-the-sun/)

So, for Human drama, you stir in a father + a son with abandonment issues (who’s also some kind of genius); add grandpa with parenting issues; and a little sister (who's not really his sister). Also toss in a gruff but lovable soldier, and add a scene where one of the guys barfs into his helmet for a really, really long time (roughly 2 liters worth) because the ground is shaking...) plus a blonde Chinese boy (Chinese-Australian supposedly, but who is actually American actor, Mike Kai Sui, born in Michigan...) who spends most of the movie screaming in terror, though he does something accidentally heroic in the end...

There are six “writers” listed, including Cixin Liu, a Chinese SF writer who became familiar to American fans with the translation and English publication of his novel The Three-Body Problem. The movie is apparently adapted (by the other five writers) from Liu’s short story “The Wandering Earth.”

The movie’s a mishmash and the claim that it's the third-largest grossing movie in Chinese history says something about China, just as Avengers: Endgame being the largest grossing movie in US history says something about us. IMDb summarizes TWE like this: “As the sun is dying out, people all around the world build giant planet thrusters to move Earth out of its orbit and sail Earth to a new star system. Yet the 2500-year journey comes with unexpected dangers, and in order to save humanity, a group of young people in this age of a wandering Earth fight hard for the survival of humankind…The sun is dying out. The earth will soon be engulfed by the inflating sun. To save the human civilization, scientists draw up an escape plan that will bring the whole human race from danger. With the help of thousands of infusion powered engines, the planet earth will leave the solar system and embark on a 2,500-year journey to the orbit of a star 4.5 light years away.”

I don’t think the people who wrote the summary and reviews actually paid attention to the movie. In it, the United Earth Government’s plan all along has been for the “navigation platform” to go on to Alpha Centauri alone as an ark ship, packed full of embryos and genetic material.

MOSS (the AI that controls the platform/ship) gets a red eye when it informs Lui Qui (not sure what role he really plays – he’s not a captain, but he CAN apparently drive the whole ship and has the security clearance to change the course and fire the engines whenever he wants to) that the plan has been all along to abandon Earth. There’s nothing he can do to stop the plan of the UEG…

Also, both reviews seem to think that it’s easy-peasy to ignite hydrogen – which they importantly state is highly flammable…which is absolutely true, but ONLY when in combination with oxygen. The snotty genius kid with daddy issues is the one who says that in drawing the Earth’s atmosphere down into Jupiter's atmosphere, it does have a small proportion of oxygen, so it might be possible for a hot enough spark to ignite the two gases and create a gigaton-sized explosion that sets off a pulse wave strong enough to push the ship away from Jupiter and back on its path to Alpha Centauri A. Which it does...

So, the end result isn’t bad. Certainly, TWE is as good or better than many American attempts at scifi (an old movie I saw in the theater leaps to mind. Yog: Monster From Space has endlessly horrible scenes, nonexistent plot, and was badly animated...but I remember it nonetheless!). In fact, I found the movie endearing, actually -- The Wandering Earth, not Yog...

Despite the conglomeration of SF ideas and the obligatory “suspense building” scenes, and sometimes downright ridiculous concepts (the teen boy with daddy issues is gifted in driving…), the movie is undeniably spectacular in special effects. The underlying relationship between the boy, his grandfather, and the “adopted” sister has moments of real poignancy, and the characters CHANGE, which is sometimes an idea that escapes speculative fiction of all kinds. As well, while the WAY the movie is resolved is problematic, the INTENT to show a wildly different Humanity choosing survival as a species rather than submitting to a committee-planned survival of the Chosen Few ended up drawing me into the end of the movie. There are sacrifices -- logical for the characters, even though it's glossed over. I’ve no doubt that more than one of those committee members were sleeping the years away expecting to assume positions of authority and dominance 2500 years later. Based on what happened, they will be in for a very rude surprise when the ship makes orbit over Humanity’s new home. Even the freaky “Chinese-Australian-American” overcomes his stupidity to save the teen boy with daddy issues…and that issue is even resolved.

With judicious editing to shorten it from its 125-minute length down to about 90 minutes, it could be a grand adventure. I’ll remember the characters, and I will never forget the explosion from the surface of Jupiter that saves the ship – implausible, but POSSIBLE.
 
After all, what more can you expect from a sci-fi movie?
—Guy Stewart

6 comments:

Pete Wood said...

Sounds like it has a healthy dose of Star Blazers too.

~brb said...

In very slight fairness to Yog, I believe that one was a Korean movie that was re-edited and redubbed for the American market. I'm willing to accept that the original Korean film might be as different from what we've seen as Gojira is from Godzilla or Planeta Bur is from Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women.

GuyStewart said...

Pete: I'm not familiar -- OK, read the Wiki page on it and I see where the Star Blazer Galmans or the Bolar Federation loosing a missile that goes astray and hits the Sun messing with the sun's natural cycle could have made its way into the movie...though that would also be true to Schmidt's book, as the whole reason we have to move is because the Kyyra have set the core of the Milky Way off like a ticking bomb... Bruce: As for "Yog", all I know was that it was really only my first SF movie. I was used to ST:TOS (I saw the broadcast of the last season), and when "Yog" (Which was apparently renamed "Space Amoeba" came out in August of 1970 (I was by then, 13 and it was the first time I was allowed to go see a real movie alone...*sigh*. Too bad it was that one!) I just remember a sparkly thing jumped aboard an Apollo space craft, came to Earth, and then took over smaller animals like crabs, squid, and turtles...

Any way, my next movie experience was 2001:A Space Odyssey -- it was a "re-release" event in 1971, as the first happened when I was 11 and I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have even understood the words, let alone the plot at that age... Most likely, I saw the 1974 release my junior year in HS...

So...there we go. I still think with editing it might actually be a GOOD movie!

Guy

GuyStewart said...

OK -- I wish Blogger comments had an edit key! Sorry about that...
Guy

~brb said...

I will confess, after decades of seeing Asians cast as comic relief sidekicks, I did enjoy seeing the blond Anglo(ish) actor in the role of the not-too-sharp comic relief sidekick.

GuyStewart said...

Me, too! He was funny and I was glad when the comic relief character actually did something brave that wasn’t out of character.