Movie Review: The Wandering Earth (2019)
“Now it’s China’s turn.”
That’s the general gist in western articles about “The Wandering Earth” (流浪地球), China’s first big-budget sci-fi film, which is currently the most lucrative movie at the worldwide box office. It grossed $350 million in its first week; it may overtake “Wolf Warrior II” to become the No. 1 box-office hit in Chinese history. Hell, it may become the first movie in history to gross $1 billion in a single market. So watch out Hollywood. That’s the general gist.
Here’s some perspective on that.
“Wandering” is the biggest movie at the worldwide box office because: 1) China is the second-biggest (soon to be the biggest) movie market in the world, and 2) it’s Chinese New Year—新年快乐 and all that—which, for the Chinese movie industry, is like Christmas break and the first week of summer all rolled into one. Going forward, unless China allows foreign films, like Hollywood’s, to open during Chinese New Year, I assume a Chinese movie will always be No. 1 at the worldwide box office during this period.
More important: Despite that “worldwide” mantle, it’s really just China. When a Hollywood movie is No. 1 at the worldwide box office, it’s generally because the world tunes in. With Chinese movies, it’s because China tunes in. They haven’t figured out how to appeal to other countries yet.
One suggestion? Stop insulting them.
In “Wolf Warrior II,” China’s biggest box office hit, an African country suffers both civil war and an outbreak of a deadly disease, and every other country, particularly the U.S., flees. We cut and run. Only China remains. It’s a true friend. It runs toward trouble while the rest of the cowardly world runs away.
We get something similar here—albeit in outer space. There’s a million-to-one shot to save the Earth and everything human beings have ever known, and our Chinese heroes are all in favor of rolling those dice. Every other country? They just want to return to their underground homes to spend their last precious hours wallowing in grief in the arms of their loved ones. They all cut and run. Some Europeans—I believe British—also wallow in drink, while the Japanese contemplate hara-kiri; but the Chinese stand firm. It’s only when a bubblegum-blowing junior high student, Duoduo (Zhao Jinmai), gives a speech about hope that the rest of the world wakes up and joins China in this million-to-one shot. Which works, of course.
As for the U.S.? We don’t seem to exist. The leader of the United Earth Government is French, one of the astronauts is a vodka-loving, patriotic Russian, and there’s a goofy, blonde-haired, wannabe Chinese Aussie named Tim (Mike Sui) along for most of the ride. But the U.S. has either dissolved into the U.E.G. or we’ve ceased to exist. Or we’re just irrelevant.
Frant Gwo’s movie is based upon a novel by Liu Cixin, a respected “hard sci-fi” writer who has won the Hugo Award (2015), the Locus (2017), and the Arthur C. Clark Award for Imagination in Service to Society (2018). “The Wandering Earth” was published in 2000; can’t speak for its hard science.
Problem? The earth is warming up. Reason? No, not that. The sun is just getting bigger and will envelope us. Solution? Turn the Earth into a giant spaceship, of course, which will propel us out of orbit and into a centuries-long journey to find another solar system. In the meantime, everyone lives underground. Some people, mostly the military, work on the surface in spacesuits.
Cut to: 17 years later. Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao), the small child of astronaut Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing of “Wolf Warrior II”), has now grown up to be a cocky teenager. He also thinks he’s a genius at driving or something; so he gets a fake security pass for him and his younger adopted sister, Duoduo, whom we first see bored and blowing bubbles in class, and they go to the surface, steal a truck, and ride off to ... what’s their plan again? Just to see the surface? Visit dad on his revolving spaceship? (Incidental thought: this Earth future has pretty lame security measures. Is it everywhere or just in China?)
Anyway, they’re arrested, tossed in jail with Tim, and are getting chastised by Grandpa, Han Zi’ang (Ng Man-tat), when their plot, whatever it was, is interrupted by the movie’s plot: Earth passes too close to Jupiter, causing earthquakes that damage Earth’s rocket boosters, and we get pulled into Jupiter’s orbit. We’re all gonna die. Our team escapes in the same stolen truck but then it’s requisitioned by the military to take some maguffin to another part of China to help with the rocket boosters.
The rest of the movie is about 1) solving the gravitational pull problem, and 2) resolving personal matters. Often at the same time.
As they travel across China, from Beijing to Shanghai to Nanjing, I was surprised that everyone is surprised by the gray frozen wasteland each city has become. It’s like they didn’t listen to the prologue. Half the movie, meanwhile, is Liu Qi’s histrionics. He blames his dad for leaving them and the military for requisitioning the truck that leads to the death of Grandpa. He wants the world to know his pain as the world is ending. He’s like an early Tom Cruise character without the gravitas.
What a brat. I never cared for him. Or his sister. What another brat. Whatever happened to well-behaved Chinese kids? 他们不是乖孩子. They’re as bratty as Americans now. Seriously, chewing gum and blowing bubbles? What’s more American than that? Maybe that’s where America went. We got subsumed by China. First they stole our IP and then they stole our ID. They’re certainly trying to steal Hollywood’s ID. As Xi Jinping has wanted to for a while.
In a way they’ve succeeded. “Wandering Earth” is as stupid as most Hollywood blockbusters. Also more jingoistic.
Me, I couldn’t get past the stupidity. It’s more than the kids. I’m like: “Wait, we’re smart enough to turn Earth into a spaceship but dumb enough to miscalculate on Jupiter’s gravitational pull?” Doesn’t exactly buoy hopes for the rest of the journey.
And there will be more of the journey. This thing is already nearing $500 million in China. They’ll keep going. They’ll push the Earth further and further into outer space. They’ll boldly go where no one but Hollywood has gone before.