Space Sweepers boasts of welcome vein of social commentary but is hampered by endless plot convolutions and a pivot into cheap platitudes.
Man first walked on the moon a little over 50 years ago, and since then, we’ve already managed to fill the cosmos with our garbage. “Space trash” — the catchall term for man-made objects that float through space, like defunct satellites or shredded rocket parts — is a growing problem, the subject of numerous books, articles, and NASA policies. Even if they’re smaller than a fleck of paint, the speed at which these particles whiz through the atmosphere put functioning satellites and manned spacecraft at risk. It’s not difficult to imagine how this particular problem, along with climate change, social inequality, the rise of mega-corporations, and a whole host of other self-inflicted ills, will only intensify over the next few decades.
These are the themes that concern Space Sweepers, director Sung-hee Jo’s punchy but bloated space opera that’s billed as South Korea’s first space blockbuster. The year is 2092 and Earth is “on life support.” Citizens wear elaborate gas masks and the sky is a lethal shade of orange, bringing to immediate mind the wildfires that regularly engulf Australia and the American West. The solar system at large is run by the omnipresent conglomerate UTS and its god-like leader, James Sullivan (Richard Armitage). The wealthy flee to idyllic extraterrestrial colonies while the lower classes eke out a living on derelict spaceships, capturing and re-selling space junk. One such ship is the Victory, whose ragtag crew of impoverished, battle-scarred misfits are considered the best sweepers in the business.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter: in this version of the future, nearly all of the characters live in the shadow of crippling debt. Money hangs like a pall over the crew, as noxious as the Earth’s poisoned air. Whatever earnings they manage to secure are wiped out by a debilitating network of fines, repairs, and bureaucracy. At one point, Tae-ho (Song Joong-Ki), the Victory’s pilot, bitterly asks his crewmates, “Do you think poverty makes us bad, or we’re poor because we’re bad?” It’s notable that this vein of social commentary — a fixture in contemporary Korean cinema — has now extended to even an interstellar backdrop. Far from solving earth’s inequality, colonizing Mars simply provides the opportunity to replicate these conditions elsewhere.
Space Sweepers balances its social realism with a subplot about Kot-nim (also called Dorothy), a missing child who may or may not be a hydrogen bomb planted by a terrorist organization called the Black Foxes. Kot-nim’s presence brings much-needed levity to the ship and softens the hardened crew, notably the menacingly tattooed Tiger Park (Seon-kyu Jin). Lengthy flashbacks and other devices fill in each character’s backstory, including the ship’s hard-drinking Captain Jang (The Handmaiden’s Kim Tae-ri), explaining why this precocious kid tugs at the heartstrings of her unwitting caretakers. Unfortunately, many of these flashbacks are almost excruciatingly trite, aiming for and mostly missing the emotional high marks achieved by similar family-oriented dramas like Train to Busan.
The weight of Sung-hee Jo’s vision is undercut by an over-reliance on wooden, dialogue-heavy exposition and distracting dubbing. The film’s leads spout earnest, oddly-cadenced English, while Sullivan and his employees talk like parodies of blockbuster villains, their conversations taking place in sterile, all-white conference rooms. Only the Black Foxes sound natural, each member speaking their native tongue in a way that seems to reflect their world’s fractured geopolitics. The film’s tone, meanwhile, careens from dark humor to intergalactic blockbuster to family drama to breezy hangout flick, even as the plot grows ever more convoluted with red herrings, extortion, blackmail, and nanobots. Amidst the clash of competing plotlines and special effects, what stands out are Space Sweeper’s more considered moments: Tae-ho piloting the ship in dirty socks because he can’t afford new shoes, or Bubs, the Victory’s lone android crew member, squirreling away cash for skin graft and voice box surgery. The film’s final act places the future of the planet with Kot-nim, who, as a symbol of the next generation, has her work cut out for her; specifically, undoing the harms of her predecessors. Sound familiar? Technology won’t save us, Space Sweepers seems to say, but maybe family and forgiveness and second chances will. It’s a shiny bit of escapism that, while sweet, probably won’t amount to much at the scrap yard.
You can currently stream Sung-hee Jo’s Space Sweepers on Netflix.