I’ll make no bones about disaster films being a genre I’m particularly fond of — something about national landmarks exploding or massive tidal waves engulfing whole cities being a great backdrop for both action and drama — and Hollywood has done much to fulfill audiences’ desire to see such massive catastrophes in all their glory. From way back in 1933 with Deluge, where massive quakes and tidal waves almost wipe out civilization, to 2015’s San Andreas, which gave us Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson pitting his biceps against shifting tectonic plates, we now have The Wandering Earth, China’s entry with a premise so insane that one can’t help but be impressed.
Directed by Frant Gwo, The Wandering Earth is an epic disaster film in every sense of the word, based on the novella of the same name, by award-winning author Liu Cixin, it tells the thrilling tale of mankind’s greatest achievement in the face of ultimate disaster as it tries to save itself from extinction. The basic premise is that the sun has reached the point in its lifecycle where it is about to become a red giant, which means that sometime within the next hundred years, the Earth will become a charred cinder, so mankind must put aside their differences if the human race is going to survive. Now, that’s not even the crazy part — Danny Boyle’s science fiction film Sunshine dealt with a similar threat (with the sun dying and mankind’s last-ditch effort being to jump-start the thing with some well-placed nuclear bombs), which was pretty crazy, yet maybe somewhat plausible — but with The Wandering Earth, the plan is to construct 10,000 enormous thruster engines across the planet, running on fusion power, to propel the Earth to another solar system.
The Wandering Earth is China’s first real science-fiction blockbuster, one with a good deal of money spent on an array of stunning visual effects that will surely make many a viewers’ jaws drop, but with all that money spent on making this the most impressive-looking science fiction action-packed disaster epic, it would have been nice if a little more time and money had been spent on the screenplay. The first few minutes of the movie throws a ton of information at the viewer — the doomed destiny of the Earth, the Sun already wreaking havoc on the global climate, the plan to build massive engines to halt the planet’s orbit and then propel it out of the solar system on its 2,500 year journey to a new home in Alpha Centauri, the massive tsunamis caused by the stopping of the Earth’s rotation, wiping out 75% of the Earth’s population, and giant underground cities constructed below each of these colossal engines to keep what’s left of humanity safe — all of this is before we get to learn anything about the film’s group of protagonists.
We are first introduced to Liu Peiqiang (Jing Wu), an astronaut who will be part of the flight crew aboard “The Navigational Platform International Space Station,” which will be guiding the Earth on its long journey to Alpha Centauri. Unfortunately, Liu’s first shift is seventeen years long, so this means abandoning his young son Liu Qi to the care of his father-in-law Han Zi’ang (Man-Tat Ng). When the film jumps ahead seventeen years later, we find his now-grown son (Chuxiao Qu) has become a rebellious, resentful young man, furious with his father for not only leaving him, but also blaming him for the death of his mother — her dying of some undefined illness and thus not being eligible for the lottery that picked people to occupy the underground cities. So one day Liu Qi decides to take his adoptive sister Han Duoduo (Jin Mai Jaho) to the planet’s surface, which requires getting a black market environment suit from nefarious criminals, and it’s after getting arrested for joy-riding in his grandfather’s massive truck, that disaster strikes.
The Earth was supposed to use Jupiter’s gravity to assist her exit from our solar system, but when a gravitational spike from the gas giant causes devastating earthquakes, which disables many of the thrusters located across the globe, it starts to pull the Earth towards it. With mere hours to get those thrusters back online, or see the Earth collide with Jupiter, all truckers are recruited to transport a lighter core (an engine component to restart the nearest planetary thruster engine). Joy-riders Liu Qi and Han Duoduo are basically press-ganged into the mission — with Liu Qi being a selfish dick about it long enough for us to really come to hate him — until eventually, it comes down to just this one plucky group standing between the Earth’s survival or its utter destruction.
What follows is an action-packed thrill ride that is as fun to watch as it is impossible to believe, and if the whole premise of a “Wandering Earth” seems ludicrous to you — which, to be fair, will most likely be everyone watching this thing — the complete lack of actual science in this science fiction movie will break you. If you start questioning things like “How does the Earth retain its gravity while travelling through space?” or “Can a frozen planet, one that is hurtling through space, retain an atmosphere?” you may find yourself being yanked out of the narrative, but director Frant Gwo does his best to keep the action flying fast and furious so as not to give the viewer too much time to think of how ridiculous it all is.
The Wandering Earth does get major points for being balls-to-the-wall crazy with its premise, which I have to admit, I find wonderfully insane, but it also owes a lot to many science fiction and disaster films that have come before it; the look of the underground cities is very reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, the Sun being a threat is, as mentioned, very similar to Danny Boyles Sunshine, the team of heroes racing across a frozen and exploding landscape is reminiscent of the comet sequence in Deep Impact, and a lot of the snowy aspects will remind one of The Day After Tomorrow and Snowpiercer. But one of the more surprising elements is the inclusion of a HAL 9000 evil robot from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now, this last point comes along while our heroes scramble across arctic landscapes, which are constantly being torn apart by quakes. Above all this, on the space station, Liu Qi’s father finds himself in a battle with a computer hell-bent on writing off the Earth so as to preserve its back-up cargo of frozen embryos, and who will kill anyone who stands between it and its objective.
While viewing Frant Gwo’s The Wandering Earth, you may lose track of how many times our heroes should have died — I gave up at around twelve — but strangely enough, that didn’t affect my enjoyment of this movie, and maybe that has something to do with just how crazy the central premise was, for if you have signed on to the whole “move the planet through the galaxy” premise, then every other crazy moment will just pale in comparison. This isn’t to say there weren’t genuine problems with some of the film’s elements; an obnoxious Australian-Chinese comic relief, whose every moment on screen made my soul die a little more, and Liu Qi’s adoptive sister could easily have been written out as her sole character trait is “Hi, I’m female, and that’s about it,” but the real killer for me was Liu Qi himself, as his change from selfish idiot to self-sacrificing hero comes with no real organic progression of character. It’s as if the writers reached a certain point in the script and realized they needed a hero, so they just flicked a switch.
Simply put, The Wandering Earth is a beautiful dystopian science fiction disaster film, one that puts its visual splendour ahead of such petty concerns like having three dimensional characters — the closest we get is the moments with Liu Qi’s father aboard the space station — but I couldn’t help but put aside most of my qualms while being carried away with this particular adventure tale, which highlighted mankind’s indomitable spirit and can-do attitude, this is the type of film that must be looked at as a tapestry — while not looking too closely at the individual parts — as it tackles clichés and tropes at levels never dreamed of before, making many of its Hollywood contemporaries pale in comparison. The Wandering Earth is well worth checking out, even if you are normally opposed to foreign films and reading subtitles, you won’t be disappointed.
The Wandering Earth (2019)
Movie Rank - 7/10
Frant Gwo’s The Wandering Earth isn’t the mindless disaster film one might expect, nor is it much of a though provoking science fiction tale either, but what it does provide us with is a spectacular adventure that does manage celebrates the human spirit.