“It is unreasonable to expect humans to stay reasonable”
Frant Gwo’s Chinese sci-fi action film The Wandering Earth (2019) is based on Liu Cixin’s 2000 novella of the same name. With a budget of only 50 million dollars, it has become the third highest-grossing non-English film of all time.
In the distant future, the Sun is about to inhale and obliterate Earth. To prevent the extinction of mankind, the uninhabitable planet, whose populace has been forced to live underground, is propelled far from the solar system. A sudden threat arises in the form of Jupiter’s gravitational pull. As it wreaks havoc on the Earth’s surface, it continues to drag the planet closer. Preventing the catastrophe becomes a struggle between optimism and despair, with Earth’s only hope resting in human empathy and insubordination.
The film’s visuals are nothing short of spactacular. So much so, that even the conventional storyline, weighed down by father-son melodrama and predictably sacrificial deaths, is digestible. The abundance of explosive colours and dynamic special effects makes the viewing experience a truly unique one. Its appeal rests somewhere between virtual reality and a stream of action sequences that, unlike most action movies, never stretch far enough to challenge the attention span of the film’s audience.
The first half of The Wandering Earth has to be endured patiently. Its purpose is almost entirely expositional, which reduces the film’s fast-paced transitions to a torrent of complex explanations. There is quite a poignant reference to the kind of behaviour that led to Earth’s environmental crisis in the first place, encompassed in the words: “everyone was concerned about that thing called money”.
The biting temperatures on the Earth’s surface, and the sights that accompany the protagonists’ journey to the top, are reminiscent of Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004). The other sources of inspiration for the film’s triteness are quite evident. They include a strong endorsement of the final rescue mission in the Wachowski siblings’ The Matrix Revolutions (2003), the shooting-in-the-air scene in Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break (1991), and a sharp nod to Mother, the AI navigation system in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). It comes in the form of Moss, the computer responsible for steering the space station that has to witness the horrors on Earth from afar.
Its introduction seems like an obvious, if somewhat perfunctory, reference to the contrast between the human spirit, and the coldness of machines. The only time this is interpreted on a deeper level is when the humans’ responsibility for programming the cruel will of the machines is emphasised. To balance out the wooden somberness of The Wandering Earth, the film toys around with some humour – mostly in the form of a vodka-smuggling Russian astronaut – and one-liners like: “let’s ignite Jupiter”.
In concluion, The Wandering Earth fails to present a compelling narrative full of twists and turns, and many viewers may end up feeling quite emotionally detached from the storyline in general. The film does, however, maintain control of its pacing and editing, providing a satiating feast for the eyes.