19 February 2019

The Wandering Earth

Yesterday I took my wife out on an actual date (!), something which has become for us, sadly, a bit of a luxury and a rarity since having children and moving back to the United States – and we went to see the new mainland Chinese blockbuster The Wandering Earth 《流浪地球》. I’ll try and give some of my impressions of the film. Just be aware that this review is coming from the same contrarian who gave The Last Jedi a rather half-hearted thumbs-up, ironically, because Rian Johnson proved himself to be more of a traditionalist than the Star Wars fanboys in regard to his treatment of the canonical mythos – Mahler’s ‘preservation of fire’ versus ‘worship of ashes’, and all that.

The Wandering Earth takes as its premise a cataclysmic disaster in which the Sun is going nova. It will consume the Earth within 100 years and destroy the Solar System within 300. Mankind embarks upon a grand project to use massive cold fusion reactors to move the Earth 4.2 light years into orbit around Proxima Centauri, using a massive international space station to pilot the Earth toward its new destination over the course of 2500 years. Things take a very literal wrong turn as the Earth passes the orbit of Jupiter, however, and it is up to a Chinese astronaut, Liu Peiqiang 劉培強, and his fellow Russian cosmonaut Makarov on the space station, along with that astronaut’s family still on Earth, to correct Earth’s course before it collides with Jupiter. In the telling of this story, the film makes several attempts to explore questions regarding humanity’s instinct for survival, the ethics of extreme measures in the face of world-ending peril, determinism versus free will, and the meaning and nature of family and home in a ‘post-apocalyptic’ (actually ‘peri-apocalyptic’) universe.

The Wandering Earth weds an ambitious, grand space-operatic high concept with the noisy, landscape-shattering, frenetic pacing and disbelief suspension-straining of a Roland Emmerich-style disaster flick. In terms of special effects (big vehicles, chase scenes, explosions and so on), director and screenwriter (also sci-fi author whose story this was) Liu Cixin 劉慈欣 and producer Frant Gwo 郭帆 really don’t do anything by halves. The atmospheric shots of the exhaust trails of the Earth Engines, of Jupiter, of the moving Earth itself are a cinematographic achievement in themselves: they manage to give the film an appealing æsthetic weight it wouldn’t otherwise have.

The fact that action star Wu Jing 吳京 (of Wolf Warrior 《戰狼》 fame) gets top billing should tell you something about the film’s core target demographic. And yet at the same time, for all the big, noisy pyrotechnics, the core message of the film is not a violent one. Human beings don’t fight each other over the preservation of their planet. Even Wu Jing’s character Liu Peiqiang (though he does get to cause an explosion and drop a typical badass action-movie one-liner) depends far more on suasion and pathos to save the day than on force – and as the emotional climax of the movie draws near, one of the major characters (the charmingly-cynical teenager Han Duoduo 韓朵朵) makes an appeal to hope and to an ideal of peaceful global coöperation that would have the late great Gene Roddenberry himself shedding big fat tears of joy. The problem that they have to solve involves (again, somewhat in defiance of scientific realism) re-rigging one of the fusion-powered ‘Earth Engines’ that are propelling the Earth out of its orbit, to act as an ignition torch to spark a hydrogen combustion reaction that will propel the Earth out of Jupiter’s gravity well. In the scene you see hundreds of people of six or seven different nationalities all literally pushing in the same direction to achieve this goal.

One thing that I fear is lost on American audiences about The Wandering Earth is that it can be loosely considered a New Year’s movie, which means something very specific in Chinese culture. Family troubles and reconciliation are a very common trope in New Year’s films, and The Wandering Earth is no exception to that; the emotional core of the movie is the bittersweet relationship between Liu Peiqiang and his estranged son Liu Qi 劉啓 (all the more impressive when one considers all of Wu Jing’s parts were shot separately from the rest of the film, essentially in post-production). In addition, there is an underlying (somewhat understated) œcological theme about the nature of home and its relationship to specific places. The Wandering Earth project required piling the surviving human population into massive underground cities located around the ‘Earth Engines’ that also provide heat and energy: as it moves further from the Sun, the surface temperatures plunge to negative 100° centigrade. All of the characters in the movie were forced out of their homes; all of them lost loved ones in the ‘lottery’ that was held to determine who got entrance to the underground cities. (These events are more alluded to than directly exposited.) Without spoiling too much: one of the characters, his situation hopeless, chooses to die in a collapsing apartment building – presumably his home before he went underground. As the global situation gets more desperate, the United Earth Government urges people to go home and spend their remaining moments with their loved ones.

A few of the characters don’t quite feel like they ‘earn’ their arcs. Wisecracking hapa haole sidekick Tim doesn’t really even have one, apart from being the comic relief guy who saves Liu Qi’s life from time to time. Han Duoduo’s backstory, though it’s compelling enough that you’re rooting for her at the end and you do care about what happens to her, still feels a bit compressed (coming mostly in flashbacks in the second half of the film). The characters who get the best ‘moments’, in my own view, are Liu Qi’s grandfather Han Ziang 韓子昂 who manages a nice mix of comedy and pathos, at one point getting in trouble for bribing a prison guard; and the Russian cosmonaut Makarov, who exudes a genuine friendly warmth for Liu Peiqiang, and whose (presumably Christian) religious sentiments manage to make themselves known and felt without feeling forced or lampshaded.

Much of the film does feel like it’s riffing off of long-established science-fictional and action film tropes, which is actually fine with me. It’s not like American films have been breaking ground in that direction for the past few decades at least. Instead, it’s the hopeful communitarian, pro-family social vision that manages to peek through the explosions and cliffhangers and futuristic Mack truck chase scenes, that in our cynical and near-nihilistic age seems to come off like such a breath of fresh air. In the end, Liu Cixin and Frant Gwo have put out a big-budget action movie, not to be taken too seriously, but one with a heart; one which holds up fairly well by contemporary action movie standards and extremely well by æsthetic ones.

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