The Wandering Earth is a Chinese film that Netflix acquired global streaming rights to without much apparent fanfare. And yet, this is the third highest grossing film worldwide of 2019. A mega box office smash in China, The Wandering Earth is a sci-fi epic that depicts humanity installing massive engines on the Earth and blasting it out of orbit, fleeing from an expanding sun.
The movie unfurls in two separate places. We have a space station that acts as a navigator for the planet Earth. Aboard the station is a rotating crew who spend time out of shifts frozen in stasis. On the planet itself are hundreds of huge engines propelling it forward, and underneath these are cities in which the remains of humanity lives. The Earth’s rotation has been stopped, causing the planet’s surface to be frozen and lethal to anyone caught outside without a thermal suit.
Whilst this is a very bombastic film with tons of fast cuts and dramatic shouting, there is a definite mixture of tone in the two locales. On the space station, things are slower. Liu Peiqiang has been tracking the approach of Jupiter, which will be used to give Earth the gravity kick it needs to leave the solar system.
His back and forth with the stereotypical Russian astronaut provides many of the laughs and some blessed characterisation, something which the Earth plotline sorely lacks. MOSS, the sentient computer in charge of the station, is coupled with an ominous bass-heavy score. This casts immediate doubt that it has the station’s crew’s best interests at heart.
On the planet itself, we mainly follow Liu Qi. He was only 4 when his father, Peiqiang, left to crew the space station. Despite being told that his father would be ‘a star’ for him to see, he is bitter at being left behind. Following him is his adopted sister, Duoduo, and grandfather. But after an earthquake knocks out most of the huge planetary engines and the Earth begins to fall into Jupiter’s massive gravitational pull, this trio gets caught up with a rescue team sent to restart the engines.
For a movie that throws so many characters at the screen and runs at over two hours, there is very little time spent actually fostering any relations between them. At times there are huge dramatic deaths that pass by with nary a blip because we’ve never had a conversation with them beyond bellowing from disaster to disaster.
When the movie slows down there are some touching moments between Qi and his family. But this is few and far between. It’s a shame that more isn’t done between Qi and his estranged father as the emotional climax of the movie ends up rather one-sided. It trades off our innate empathy of family love rather than actually doing the work on screen.
Even though the movie may throw its characters into a vacuum, it certainly doesn’t hold back on the action. The CGI ranges from blocky to downright impressive. The looming presence of Jupiter hangs heavy and director Frant Gwo gives everything a blockbuster movie scale. Whilst it’s easy to lose track of why our cast are lurching from one disaster to another the sheer size of what’s going on is impressive. But Gwo cuts between shots so rapidly and the action remains so highly ramped for so long that the movie just assaults you into a daze.
Despite huge success and the unusualness of a breakout Chinese movie of this scale, The Wandering Earth is definitely a case of style over substance. The characters are mostly paper thin and the narrative rattles around noisily without ever really settling down. It could do with half an hour chopping out of it and also half the cast hitting the editing room floor. But that said, there is fun to be had in the unabashed sci-fi chaos. No other movie attacks Jupiter quite like The Wandering Earth!
Words by Michael Record