The Wandering Earth (Liu dang di qiu)


I wann go to cool places with you.

(2018) Science Fiction (CMC/NetflixJing Wu, Chuxiao Qu, Guangjie Li, Man-Tat Ng, Jin Mai Jaho, Mike Kai Sui, Hongchen Li, Jingjing Qu, Yichi Zhang, Haoyu Yang, Zhigang Jiang, Huan Zhang, Jiayin Lei, Arkadiy Sharogradskiy, Hao Ning, Yi Yang, Hexuan Guo, Zhonzhao Li, Zixian Zhang, Zachary Alexander Rice, Marvin Bouvet, Luoyi Tao. Directed by Frant Gwo

 

It is not a matter of much debate that the greatest cinematic epics come from Hollywood. However, it is also true that Hollywood isn’t the only game in town any longer, and bustling film industries in India, China, Japan and Thailand are showing signs of giving the U.S. of A. a run for its money.

And I mean that in a literal sense. The Wandering Earth, based on a short story by Hugo-winning author Cixin Liu, posits a near-future when the sun is discovered to be changing into a Red Giant much sooner than anyone expected. In less than a century, the solar system is going to be vaporized by the expanding star that once gave us life. A hastily convened consortium of world governments decide that rather than leaving the planet behind and finding a new one, we would attach ginormous engines to the equator to stop the spin and then blast us away from our current place in the universe and using Jupiter as a slingshot, head us out towards Alpha Centauri and a new life…arriving in about 2,500 years.

The problem with this scenario is that without the sun’s warming rays, which we would lose the further out towards deep space we got, things are going to get mighty cold. What’s left of humanity is going to be sheltered deep underground; the surface has become a frozen wasteland a la The Day After Tomorrow and lantern-jawed heroes crew a multi-national space station that acts as kind of a tugboat for the planet. I’m not really sure on that point; a lot of the plot is a bit murky and difficult to follow. Im not sure if it was a translation issue, or if crucial scenes got left on the cutting room floor.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Alpha Centauri – we got caught by Jupiter’s gravitational well and are headed for a not-so-pleasant Jovian encounter. It looks like even after all the careful planning the human race is going to die after all – unless someone saves the day.

The film, if you haven’t already guessed, is a product of the People’s Republic of China and so it is the Chinese who are the heroes in the movie. That’s okay by me – after all, when Hollywood makes global catastrophe films the heroes are generally American, right? However, the characters are either bland and unmemorable, or are archetypes rather than characters; the badass military hero, the brilliant computer nerd, the obnoxious little sister, the bitter and rebellious son – all are given almost no background here. It’s hard to be invested in anyone that comes on the screen.

Also being a Chinese film, the movie espouses Chinese values – that it is required of the individual to sacrifice for the good of the State – which will run counter to a lot of American individualist types. Also, it is true at this moment of time the Chinese aren’t in favor particularly with the conservative side of the aisle, so American audiences have not flocked to stream this puppy on Netflix, which is the only place you can see it currently in the States.

The special effects dominate everything here and some of them are spectacular – and why wouldn’t they be when a consortium of effects houses including WETA of New Zealand are pitching in to help – but it gets to the point that all the visual eye candy begins to overwhelm the senses.

My main gripe here is the logic and the science. Supposedly vetted by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, I kept going back to the amount of power it would take for the Earth to escape the gravitational pull of the Sun and what that kind of force would do to the Earth’s crust. Not to mention that the atmosphere would eventually freeze solid once it passes a certain point in the solar system, and what that might due to underground cities in terms of pressures on the crust. A lot of the plot hinges around things happening because the script said so. I felt that the suspension of disbelief became too much to handle.

But if you’re in the mood for a special effects-laden sci-fi extravaganza that you haven’t seen yet, there is something to recommend it in that regard. After all, this is the second-highest grossing Chinese film of all time (as of publication) and that’s saying something. Also to be fair, the plot is no dumber than any you’ll find in a typical Hollywood sci-fi epic, but the too-large ensemble cast and the humongous amount of sci-fi tropes that appear here makes this the kind of movie that might have been better-suited to SyFy than Netflix.

REASONS TO SEE: Big dumb fun with some occasionally breathtaking effects.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is just too ludicrous to ignore.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence, sci-fi action and kids in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the story is fictional and Franz isn’t real, the facts about Freud’s last days in Vienna are largely as shown.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews; Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Space: 1999
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Easy Does It

Sunshine


Sunshine

Ain't no sunshine when she's gone...

(Fox Searchlight) Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Cliff Curtis, Rose Byrne, Troy Garity, Benedict Wong, Hiroyuki Sanada, Mark Strong. Directed by Danny Boyle

Boyle is the director of such impressive films as 28 Days Later, Trainspotting and Millions, all of which I would highly recommend (his next movie after this one was Slumdog Millionaire, previously reviewed in this blog). A couple of years ago, I was in puppy heaven when I discovered that he was doing a science fiction film.

It is about 50 years in the future and the sun is dying – take that, you global warming alarmists! A mission was sent to re-ignite the sun with a kind of stellar bomb, but that mission failed and the astronauts aboard the Icarus were presumed lost. The situation on Earth growing more desperate, a second mission – Icarus II – is launched and with it goes the hopes of humanity.

Things seem to be going pretty well, but as they approach Mercury, they pick up the distress signal of the first mission. Logic dictates that the crew continues on their way, explode their bomb and then see about the other Icarus but no, they have to go there first. Hey, what’s logic when you have science fiction? Anyway, predictably, bad things happen when they try to change course, an EVA repair mission goes the way of most EVA repair missions in science fiction movies these days and things burn up, flash freeze, explode and so on. What’s an astronaut to do?

Where to begin? This is a wildly uneven movie. There are a lot of great visuals, some wonderful dramatic tension and Chris Evans darn near steals the show – yeah, I know, Chris Evans – and the soundtrack kicks bootie. To the bad, you’ll notice at no point in my synopsis did I mention a specific human character. That’s because they are so interchangeable and unmemorable. Not all of it is the fault of the generally solid cast – it’s just that they play mostly subdued, as you would expect highly trained astronaut/scientists to be in that situation. In going for realism, Boyle winds up giving his dramatic tension short shrift. With a cast that includes some very good actors like Michelle Yeoh, Cillian Murphy and Cliff Curtis, that’s a bit of a crime.

Surprisingly enough, I found the direction of Danny Boyle to be one of the movie’s weaker points. Boyle is a genuine talent – his resume is nothing if not impressive – but he falls prey to the “Look, Ma, I’m directing” syndrome, taking himself far too seriously, sacrificing story for overly-clever directing moves. For example, the villain – who is apparently fully human – is rarely glimpsed as anything more than an impressionistic figure. When the heroes engage in hand-to-hand combat with him, the results are nearly unwatchable and actually gave me a headache. One of the more interesting moves is that as the crew of the Icarus II board the Icarus I, faces (I assume of the first crew) flash onto the screen like some terrible subliminal ad gone awry. I’m not sure what Boyle is trying to accomplish here, but if a director needs to explain what you’re trying to get across, then he/she didn’t do a very good job in the first place. In the end, the movie breaks down in the third act, just when it should be picking up steam. You get the feeling that they were rushing things more than a bit – in any case, I think if Boyle had paid more attention to storytelling and less to style, he might have made a really super film.

While I complain a great deal here, there are some compelling reasons to see this. For one thing, it’s a “smart” science fiction movie – think Solaris and Event Horizon and those are rare enough as to be very precious. And yes, I listed a number of failings of the director, but in all fairness, he got more right than he didn’t, and that’s a plus too. This is not what you would call a popcorn movie, but at the same time the gorgeous visuals – the screen is constantly bathed in warm golds and yellows of the solar winds – beg to be seen on a big screen or at least an HD plasma home theater.

This is quite the disappointment; I was hoping this could be a sleeper hit, but the box office here in the States was dismal. That’s too bad – but I can understand why people aren’t warming to this movie, and considering how close it comes to the sun, that’s unacceptable.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific visuals. Chris Evans gives an unexpectedly strong performance. Astronaut-cicle; need I say more?

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Look Ma, I’m directing. Messy third act. Style over storytelling.

FAMILY VALUES: Violence and some icky visuals. A little bit of language too.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The helmet design for the space suits were based on the character Kenny from “South Park.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The scientific advisor, Dr. Brian Cox of the University of Manchester and the CERN project provides a commentary track. There are also two unrelated short films that director Boyle included simply so that the filmmakers could be seen by a wider audience.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Noise