The Wandering Earth: The Deep Impact of Chinese Sci-fi

I’m guessing that few American moviegoers have seen or even heard of The Wandering Earth, directed by Frant Gwo. But to anyone familiar with the industry, the movie is making waves as the first immensely profitable, epic scale, Chinese sci-fi blockbuster. It’s being compared to such classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Interstellar in terms of scope and style, though I found it to be much closer to Deep Impact. Both films deal with governments fighting against calamities from outer space; both contain parallel plotlines of a space crew and an Earth crew; and both are crowd-pleasers thanks to compelling effects and world-building, despite being dragged down by cliche, predictable characters and uninspired dialogue.

The special effects of The Wandering Earth are breathtaking, to say the least. It borrows elements from other space and dystopian sci-fi classics for maximum effect – one outer space scene was especially reminiscent of Interstellar. Yet it has a style all its own, particularly during the spacesuit-tundra sequences. And it has some of the best use of slow-motion I’ve seen since The Matrix. There are scenes when it seems laggy, like the computer models weren’t rendered completely, but those moments are few and far between.

From a narrative perspective, the story feels like a long string of bait and switches. It leads you down a certain path for five, ten minutes, only to change course with no warning. Within the first twenty minutes, it goes from space-threat-crisis to underground-dystopia to space-station-drama to disaster-flick, as if the director wanted to showcase that he can make a respectable entry in each of those genres (which, honestly, he does remarkably well).

This isn’t inherently bad, having so many different styles mashed together – it’s just jarring at first, especially for somebody like myself who hadn’t read the book. Like I said though, while it borrows heavily from American sci-fi cliche, it still makes its own unique contributions. The best of these by far is the relationship between one of the astronauts and the onboard computer, MOSS, which brillianty subverts the evil-robot-on-a-spaceship trope that so many American movies are beholden to.

What’s less forgivable is the fact that every ‘solution’ to fix each new problem is either unnecessary or flawed. For instance, in one scene, some of the characters are trying to get a plot device to a final location, and then one of them just destroys it out of anger! But wait – they conveniently found a replacement plot device, because the government had a backup plan all along. This is relentless, and it has the unfortunate effect of making the stakes ambiguous rather than high.

Speaking of relentless… the special effects are far superior to Deep Impact, but the melodrama is far more confusing. Every fifteen minutes, the music fades up, the cameras show close-ups and wide shots for dramatic effect, and a voiceover tells us that things are at their most dire. With so many crucial moments, none of them feel crucial after long. Two of them stick out: one because of a poignant flashback to the introduction, the other because it’s the finale. But those high points are interspersed with half a dozen other ‘climaxes’. Again, this doesn’t make the stakes high, but rather dulls them.

There’s also the logic. I’m no physicist, and I respect that sci-fi movies are 50% ‘fi’, so I don’t expect airtight science. But the plot revolves around humanity’s ability to propel the Earth away from the sun using 10,000 giant engines. And if that sounds preposterous, wait until they try to get away from Jupiter!

Even more illogical is the film’s underlying message, that world governments can work together. I applaud film-makers who believe it, and maybe one day that will be a reality thanks to films like this. But as of now, we live in a world where such compromise is a pipe dream. And the fact that the film was sponsored by the Chinese government feels particularly ironic.

To be fair, the overriding theme is one of cooperation. And to be even more fair, the director made an excellent movie that, taken on its own, is well worth your time and money. But the movie wasn’t released in a vacuum. It’s released with the blessing of a totalitarian government, which is known for censorship, espionage, corruption, and political/religious intolerance. At best, the film feels like a face-saving tactic; at worst, it feels like blatant misdirection and propaganda.

Even so, it’s largely a triumph, and the title of ‘benchmark’ or ‘icon’ is well-deserved. This movie may very well usher in an era of visual Chinese storytelling on a scale we’ve never seen before, one that could easily find a market among American audiences. There’s still room to grow, both in the refinement of narrative technique, and in the removal of totalitarian systems of power. But The Wandering Earth is a much-needed push in the right direction.