The Wandering Earth: A Stunning Sci-Fi Thriller that Falls Victim to the Genre’s Shopworn Stereotypes – Film Review

The Wandering Earth (流浪地球)  is a 2019 Chinese science-fiction film adaptation of the similarly titled short story written by one of China’s most prolific authors, Liu Cixin. It was directed by Frant Gwo and produced by Gong Ge’er. The story of The Wandering Earth takes place in the near future. The sun is about to die, threatening to plague the planet Earth with an inconceivably devastating ice age for an unimaginable amount of time. Humans realise that if they don’t do something, everything  shall essentially go extinct. So, the people of Earth put aside their differences and band together to build 10,000 Earth Engines, which run along the equator and were crafted to propel Earth out of the solar system.  

When I sat down to watch this film, the only things that I knew about it was that it was a sci-fi story involving Earth’s survival and one of my film-loving mates really loved it a lot. Considering that The Wandering Earth went on to become China’s third highest grossing film of all-time, I’m upset that more people either weren’t aware of it, or that they didn’t celebrate it (outside of China, that is). In the West, the film was practically unknown, and it is such a fun fucking film that it’s disappointing it didn’t get the attention and love it deserves.

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There were so many aspects to The Wandering Earth that made it a marvellous watching experience. The acting was great, the visual effects were rather impressive, the story itself places unique spins on classic sci-fi tropes while trying to examine themes of family and togetherness, and the science behind the plot’s driving forces were intriguing and well written, for the most part. Plus, the action was virtually non-stop and enjoyably thrilling from beginning to end. If there’s anything the film lacked, it was character depth and a separation from common American pitfalls within the genre.

My favourite parts of the film were the action sequences and the grandiose scenic shots, whether they were of Earth from space, the looming presence of another planet in Earth skies due to plot things, or giant towering waves of frozen ocean water with bits of ships and houses jutting out along the edges. The action was very fast-paced and did an awesome job of holding my attention, which when coupled with the beautiful scope of the settings took my breath away on more than one occasion. I mean, the attention to detail is phenomenal and something that isn’t very common in American popcorn action-flicks (at least not many recent ones). Even the use of CGI was smooth and fit nicely with some of the practical effects. It’s not perfect as every once in a while you can tell it’s very techno-heavy, but it’s also not as atrocious as Deep Impact, for example.

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Another quality I loved was the break away from the more traditional historical fantasies and sweeping epics that tend to be typical of Chinese cinema—films or dramas. I adore watching them and always appreciate the meticulous way they are crafted but having a Chinese science-fiction thriller is so uncommon that it became an instant allure. It set itself apart from the masses of other Chinese cinema and showed me that not only can they do these sorts of pictures, but they can do them damn well.

Something else that the film offered that’s relatively uncommon in American popcorn Earth survival films was the complication that arose that placed their astounding plan into jeopardy. So, one of the ways that the Earth planned on obtaining enough speed to propel themselves out of the solar system was by using Jupiter’s gravitational well (not a spoiler, shared in the beginning-ish). However, a complication pops up that ends up making this plan devastating. This whole concept was super refreshing to watch as I’ve never seen anything like it in films, just books. That combined with the notion of wrapping Earth in super-powered jets to essentially thrust it away from it’s doom-and-gloom fate was an excellent twist to this classic survival trope.

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For things that the film didn’t do well, there are two main ones. The first is this theme of a broken family and how a child deals with abandonment, and the other was how similar The Wandering Earth was as a whole to its American counterparts.

The story is focused on a kid named Liu Qi and his father Captain Wang Lei. Wang Lei leaves his son behind on Earth so he could go into space and set up the station that would be pivotal in getting the plan into motion (pun slightly intended). At first Liu Qi was proud of his dad, but as he got older, he started to resent Wang Lei for abandoning him. It’s not until later in the film that he begins to understand just what his father must have sacrificed to do the job that needed to be done. The motif of abandonment is such a common emotional criterion in disaster films that witnessing it here made me cringe. It’s super foreseeable and immensely overdone. I feel like there were many other ways to add an emotionally evocative element to the narrative without having to resort to the plebeian device of parent-leaves-child-so-child-resents-parent-until-climax-point-a-occurs-blah-blah-blah. Additionally, the focus is so heavily directed on the father and son dynamic that it detracts from providing depth or adequate attention to the minor characters, who were far more compelling, in my opinion. Because of that, when untimely deaths occur, there is no substance to them to draw a genuine response of sorrow or sadness.

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Other ways that the film regurgitates American stereotyped characteristics include artificial intelligences that have ulterior motives or orders, flashy action-sequences to fluff out film times, and conveniently orchestrated plot twists to incite shock and tension or to alleviate said shock and tension. Combined, all of these components made The Wandering Earth highly predictable.

But you know what, even with all that crap, it’s still a wonderful film.

Overall, The Wandering Earth is a superb sci-fi thriller. It’s fun and compelling, especially with the original modification to well-worn patterns of the genre. The acting is solid. There is a good balance of action and tense conflicts with goofy personalities, wholesome humour, and inspiring interactions. Also, the scenery is fucking gorgeous. It’s pure, unadulterated entertainment and I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a good engaging film to watch.

You can catch The Wandering Earth over on Netflix.

7 fancy cores outta 10.

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