“This isn’t dirty. Human beings are dirty.”
Jo Sung-hee’s South Korean space opera Space Sweepers (Korean: 승리호, 2021) is regarded as the country’s first space blockbuster. It should be noted that space opera is a subgenre of science fiction and was initially used as a derogatory term by avid sci-fi fans. That’s because it’s predominantly a “futuristic melodramatic fantasy involving extraterrestrial beings”, as the Merriam-Webster dictionary states.
When a group of space sweepers discovers a little girl branded as a life-threatening robot by UTS Space Guards hiding aboard their ship, their haunting pasts drive them to demand ransom in exchange for her life. But as secrets are uncovered and motives challenged, all four team members will have to battle something they thought they had already conquered – their conscience.
The film likens its ambience to the nostalgic aura of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), capturing the same puffy breaths of ashen smoke and grime-streaked walls. However, Space Sweepers leans closer toward Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Sheep? (1968), the novel that inspired Blade Runner, revisiting the costliness of organic matter and the distorted dream of life on Mars, the pursuit of which antagonizes humans toward their dying planet.
The film’s subject matter exposes the ongoing debate regarding the humanitarian crisis on Earth, the prioritization of which battles dreams of costly, and highly questionable, space colonization. One is spurned in the name of the other, leaving the film’s characters, as well as the society at large, facing bitter moral dilemmas. While this topic of discussion is hardly new in cinematic depictions of the future, Space Sweepers manages to tiptoe toward it with childlike apprehension.
In fact, the film’s black-and-white morality divides the characters into two opposing teams, nominating one clear antagonist. James Sullivan (Richard Armitage) is stripped of enough mystery to appear as a one-dimensional obstacle on the path to deeper reflection. This leads to the fantastical notion that all human beings are deeply righteous, and that any distortion of a reality guided by this virtue is the fault of a single deviant soul.
While this innocence is certainly an element of the subgenre in which Space Sweepers marinates, its artificiality makes it hard for the film to appeal to everyone. On top of that, the dialogue is often stilted and force-fed bits of humor, which are meant to reinforce the lightness of the plot in our minds. This ploy hardly seems necessary.
However, Space Sweepers does offer soaring, immersive visuals that bring to mind the most spine-tingling video games, distracting us from the storyline whenever it’s necessary. The implementation of translation devices that eradicate the need to learn languages to communicate is also a teasing notion, one that adds an international component to Space Sweepers and stirs some cultural nuances into the mix.
Unfortunately, the film’s greatest downside is its almost shocking lack of tension. The first spark of turmoil appears only after the first twenty minutes, and then feebly flickers in and out of existence. This leads to an alarming level of indifference on the part of the audience. The melodrama, present in copious amounts, sadly crowds the space setting out of the narrative, making flashes of spaceships and grunts of action an almost rare occurrence. Surprisingly, the drama lacks the emotional punch that would indicate enough strength to support Space Sweepers‘ bulk.
Nevertheless, despite its cursory exploration of the themes it embraces, Space Sweepers delivers that unique element that all space operas promise – a characteristically optimistic tone. Thanks to this, the film is a great option for younger viewers, who can endure two and a half hours of flashing subtitles.