The Wandering Earth (2019) is an interesting film. Noteworthy for many reasons, but deeply flawed for equally many.
As an adaptation of an original science fiction work, it is a refreshing change of pace from Hollywood's increasing focus on reboots and sequels. In a traditionally Western genre, it's a fascinating exploration of Chinese culture in this space – family, work and state.1 And as a Chinese blockbuster, it demonstrates, as Ben Kenigsberg put it for The New York Times, that the Chinese film industry ‘can hold its own at the multiplex’.
But just as Hollywood films have their flaws, so too does The Wandering Earth. Most obviously, for a science fiction film, The Wandering Earth plays awfully fast-and-loose with its science.
- A ‘gravitational spike’ disrupts the trajectory of the Earth as it passes Jupiter. (Don't you just hate it when Newtonian mechanics, which have predicted the motion of planets for thousands of years, suddenly stop working at the most inconvenient time for the plot?)
- The humans had planned to perform a gravity assist (slingshot) around Jupiter to position Earth on its course towards Alpha Centauri, but as a consequence of the film's events, end up shooting away from it in a totally random direction. (Good luck making it to Alpha Centauri! Now without any navigation platform or contingency plan.)
- How exactly is the surface of the Earth lethal? One character dies from freezing, while another apparently asphyxiates from there being no oxygen. But on the surface, fires continue burning, and there is apparently suffient atmosphere for some planes to fly, so where did all the oxygen go?2
I could go on, but I appreciate that dodgy science is par for the course for big-budget science-fiction films. Unfortunately for The Wandering Earth, things not making sense extends far beyond just the science. For example, a genius engineer can reprogram an Earth Engine to direct its power to reaching the surface of Jupiter, but the program inexplicably and plot-conveniently cannot operate the locks or firing pins, requiring dangerous manual intervention.3 (This method of artificially manufacturing barriers for the protagonists to overcome seems to be a recurring theme.)
Most egregiously, however, the direction taken by the film renders the entire plot effectively unnecessary. The resolution to the humans' problems – Liu Peiqiang flying the space station into Jupiter – has absolutely no relation to the preceding 90% of the film; it was all useless! Perhaps this could have been justifiable if, say, Liu had originally been reticent to act and only changed through seeing the sacrifies of those on earth, but no, this was also not the case. From the very first scene of the film, Liu, though a poor father figure, clearly cares about his children on Earth, has strong moral character, and has hope for the future of humanity. There is simply nothing stopping him carrying out the plan in the first place – he has no arc.
This leads to the next of the film's major issues – the complete lack of character development. Most notably, for 90% of the film, teenage girl Han Duoduo's role consists entirely of being completely and utterly useless, and an occasional damsel in distress – her accomplishments including blowing her brother's plan, throwing the most infantile tantrum ever depicted in film, and literally walking towards an expanding chasm in the ground. She then, out of nowhere, delivers a moving speech about hope and the future of humanity, before becoming useless again.45
Han's brother, Liu Qi, is little better. Liu begins the film impulsive, arrogant and spiteful at his father. Liu ends the film, too, impulsive and arrogant, even going so far as to repeat the same exact mistakes he does at the beginning when attempting to drive a transporter. Even his relationship with his father doesn't appear to have evolved, as any opportunity Liu may have had to reflect on his father's attempt to make amends is interrupted by one of the film's many, many action sequences.
The said action sequences feature some gratuitous use of slow motion, and – disappointingly, given the film's unique premise – are hackneyed and derivative. The EVA scene aboard the space station is strongly reminiscent of a similar scene from Gravity. The design of MOSS, the station's AI, is ripped straight out of 2001. And climbing up the elevator shaft is nothing you haven't seen before in every action movie ever written.
The Wandering Earth is certainly a moving film. It's themes of hope, humanity and sacrifice shine through strongly, supported by an effective soundtrack. But in the absence of a strong plot and strong characters, it feels hollow and manipulative in the end. As other reviewers have put it, a collection of ‘syrupy’, ‘manipulative sentimentality’. As John Berra put it for Screen Daily:
I especially enjoyed the part where a prison security guard refuses to take a bribe from one of the protagonists. The Communist Party approves! ;) ↩
A third character, after removing their suit helmet, simply inexplicably drops dead a few minutes later. ↩
Later, the other Earth Engines around the world appear to be able to accomplish the same thing with no such reprogramming required. ↩
‘Hope’ must be some kind of magic word in this universe, because Liu Peiqiang manages to convince the world's governments to change their minds by delivering a speech about hope and our children, despite introducing absolutely no new substantive material that the governments had not already explained. ↩
Speaking of useless characters, one character, a Chinese–Australian, is, as Spacedock put it, ‘essentially a sexual assault joke’, plus some other miscellaneous comic relief that felt entirely out of place in a serious drama. ↩