It’s fascinating to watch a movie come out and gross hundreds of millions of dollars, while also barely making a blip on the American pop culture radar. Obviously, other countries have been producing their own films for as long as the medium has existed, but we tend to think of exporting blockbusters as a strictly American phenomenon. But China has been releasing huge domestic moneymakers at a steady clip for years, with titles like Wolf Warrior and Wolf Warrior 2 (think Rambo, but bigger and weirder) making something like a combined billion dollars in grosses and Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid cracking $500 million (not to mention even more obscure stuff like the Monster Hunter series or Detective Chinatown and its sequel). Under consideration here is The Wandering Earth, a Chinese phenomenon that has made almost $700 million dollars and currently ranks as the third highest-grossing film of the year in terms of worldwide gross. This is almost all domestic, as the film was barely released in the U.S. and has now been dumped onto Netflix streaming with a pronounced lack of fanfare. It’s an interesting film, in as much as it is easy to see why it became so popular, while simultaneously being a pretty mediocre movie.
Ultimately, the huge success of The Wandering Earth proves only one thing — that China is just as capable of making junky, mindless action spectacle as Hollywood is.
In a truly bonkers sci-fi conceit, The Wandering Earth opens with reams of exposition detailing how the sun is rapidly expanding, threatening to consume the Earth. In response, scientists retro-fit the entire planet with rocket boosters to shoot it away from the sun, where it will travel for a few thousand years until it finds a new, more hospitable solar system. In a sop to actual, real science, it is mentioned that moving the Earth out of the sun’s orbit and away from the moon will make the surface uninhabitable, so mankind is moved to huge underground bunkers. There is also a space station floating around that acts as a kind of pilot for the Earth, monitoring its trajectory and maintaining the rockets. Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing, superstar actor/director of the above mention Wolf Warrior series) is a scientist on this space station, having left his young son, Liu Qi, back on Earth to live underground with his grandfather, Han Zi’ang (Ng Man-tat). After this labored set up, we catch up with the son, now a surly young man (played by Qu Chuxiao), who is running around up on the surface with his adopted sister, Han Duoduo (Zhao Jinmai). Unfortunately, the Earth is pretty bulky (it doesn’t handle very well) and has flown too close to Jupiter, and now both planets are on a collision course. Liu, Duoduo, and Han are tasked with assisting some soldier types with repairing some of the Earth rocket thingies, while up on the space station, Liu has to stop an evil AI from abandoning everyone on Earth and allowing it to just fly right into Jupiter. It’s all very busy and makes little sense, and director Frant Gwo seems to have no basic understanding of how to tell a story. The Wandering Earth cribs liberally from decades of American movies, particularly the oeuvre of disaster maestro Roland Emmerich. Most of the space station scenes with Wu Jing seem designed to look as much like Gravity as possible, just without the grace and verve of someone like Cuarón at the helm. Still, Gwo and cinematographer Michael Liu have an eye for striking images, even if only in isolation. Sweeping vistas of iced over land and water, with crumbling canyons and derelict buildings, are all quite beautiful. Even better are the scenes of Earth gradually cascading towards Jupiter, with lovely, painterly contrasts between the blues and greens of Earth and the swirling reds and oranges of Jupiter. Most of the CGI in the film is passable, if largely weightless. But Gwo also goes abstract and allows the effects to become expressionistic swathes of color and movement. Some have tried to read the film as a climate change allegory, or as a political metaphor either for or against communism. Like most movies of this scale, designed to appeal to as many people as possible, trying to pin down a coherent view point is largely a fool’s errand. Ultimately, the huge success of The Wandering Earth proves only one thing — that China is just as capable of making junky, mindless action spectacle as Hollywood is.
You can currently stream Frant Gwo’s The Wandering Earth on Netlifx.