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-[Film Reviews]-, Chinese Cinema, East Asian Cinema

‘The Wandering Earth’ (2019): All Your Favorite Hollywood Disaster-Movie Clichés, But Chinese

Directed by: Frant Gwo || Produced by: Gong Ge’er

Screenplay by: Gong Ge’er, Yan Dongxu, Frant Gwo, Ye Junce, Yang Zhixue, Wu Yi, Ye Ruchang || Starring: Qu Chuxiao, Li Guangjie, Ng Man-tat, Zhao Jinmai, Wu Jing, Qu Jingjing

Music by: Roc Chen, Lu Tao || Cinematography: Michael Liu || Edited by: Cheung Ka-fai || Country: China || Language: Mandarin

Running Time: 125 minutes

Prior to 2017, mainland China’s most successful homegrown film productions were all either fantasy, science-fiction, or comedy films, or combinations of those genres. Mainstream action blockbusters, including superhero films, were and largely remain the purview of Hollywood at the Chinese box office and around the world, but China has made inroads into the action tentpole feature over the last couple years. With the successful debuts of movies like Wu Jing’s Wolf Warrior 2 (2017) and Dante Lam’s Operation: Mekong (2016) and Red Sea (2018), the Chinese military-themed blockbuster currently tops the mainland box office, perhaps as a sign of the nation’s ostensible growing soft power; that said, more lighthearted fare such as Detective Chinatown 2 and Hello Mr. Billionaire (both 2018) remain the most consistent box office hits on the eastern side of the Pacific.

Zhao Jinmai (foreground, center) doesn’t have much to do in The Wandering Earth besides provide moral support to other characters, but she gets a decent, if corny monologue that helps save the day in Act Three.

Neither fitting into Wu Jing’s charismatic yet jingoistic military filmmaking, nor the Bollywood-esque, genre-blending romantic-comedy of The Mermaid (2016) is Frant Gwo’s science-fiction epic, The Wandering Earth, based on Liu Cixin’s novella of the same name. The film is, on its surface, a straightforward genre picture depicting a somewhat tangible, speculative future in which the whole of humanity has united into a sort of cosmocracy; this world government transforms our planet into a sort of mobile space station, a “wandering earth,” to escape our sun transforming into a red giant about 5 billion years ahead of schedule. A bit ludicrous though this premise may be, its on-screen portrayal makes for numerous creative deep-space visuals and a somewhat unique launching pad for an otherwise generic, high-concept blockbuster.

It’s as much a shame, in fact, how predictable and unimaginative the characters, narrative, and set-pieces are in The Wandering Earth (henceforth, TWE), which could’ve taken better advantage of the film’s off-the-wall premise to produce novel cinematic spectacle. The plot-beats of TWE are almost identical to a Gravity (2013) or a Sunshine (2007), along with several not-so-subtle references to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1967) and multiple Roland Emmerich disaster flicks (e.g. Independence Day [1996], The Day After Tomorrow [2004], 2012 [2009]). This unapologetic narrative formula would be fine if not for Frant’s haphazard execution of it, including both its inconsistent cast (i.e. the human element) and its special FX-heavy set-pieces (i.e. its spectacle).

Let’s start with the good, though; most of TWE’s cast are relatable enough to start, including the cliched “broken family” setup of actors Qu Chuxiao, Wu Jing (see Wolf Warrior [2015, 2017]), Zhao Jinmai, and Ng Man-tat, the latter reminiscent of most every Emmerich blockbuster. There’s a bit more going on with these characters and their relationship than the jingoistic cardboard cutouts of Wu’s Wolf Warrior films, even though the movie’s seven(!) screenwriters (including Frant) don’t develop them as much as they should. These four principal characters at least end the film on better terms than they started it, and their collective action-story in concert with the aforementioned “United Earth Government” plot-device is satisfying enough to make TWE worth watching.

The film’s visuals are more of a mixed bag than one would expect given this tentpole blockbuster’s overwhelming dependence on special FX. Extreme wide-shots of the titular mobile planetoid against the backdrop of space or amidst the gravitational pull of Jupiter are neat, and make for a visually elegant, straightforward finale that doesn’t involve a giant blue laser shooting into the sky — it involves a giant, orange laser shooting into the sky! In all seriousness, though, the film’s set-pieces are strongest when they focus on the bizarre aspects of the story’s off-the-wall premise — turning the earth into a veritable giant spaceship — rather than generic, unimaginative computer-generated (CG) shitstorms like Ng driving through a super-earthquake, dodging icebergs and frozen buildings left and right. TWE’s quasi-speculative, almost fantastical premise is weird enough to maintain interest in some of its digital FX, but not others, mainly due to how disconnected certain sequences feel from the main plot of preventing the earth from being sucked into the gravitational pull of Jupiter.

Now, for the bad: TWE’s characters are not as comical as those in a Wu Jing military thriller, nor your typical Emmerich disaster movie, but much of the cast is either (A) superfluous, like most of the space-marines (Li Guangjie, Qu Jingjing, Yang Haoyu, Li Hongchen, etc.) or (B) annoying, like the comic relief (e.g. Mike Sui, Zhang Yichi). Worst of all, Wu Jing, likely cast in a major supporting role to increase the film’s marketability, leads a bloated subplot that burns valuable screentime until the film’s ending. His relationship with fellow supporting actor, Arkady Sharogradsky, is pointless, and his subplot’s separation from the main caste wastes otherwise emotional character development.

A good example of the film’s memorable space imagery, this shot depicting Jupiter beginning to “suck” our mobile earth into its orbital grasp.

Altogether, The Wandering Earth is an ambitious but also forgettable science-fiction epic more notable for its nationality than its cinematic merit. Much of the notability of this modern, FX-driven mainland Chinese blockbuster is undercut by how generic its bare-bones plot feels and how limited its character growth is; this includes its overly sentimental, saccharine themes. Its pervasive visual FX capitalize on its borderline fantasy premise to a certain extent, but not enough to distinguish itself from your average summer blockbuster fare; the FX themselves are not consistent or convincing enough to warrant a second viewing or a recommendation to those tired of Avatar (2009)-knockoffs. Still, one could do much worse for high-concept genre fiction at the summer box office and, to The Wandering Earth’s credit, it makes use of its relatable, if vanilla characters to produce worthwhile cinematic entertainment.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: It’s no Saturday night blockbuster extravaganza (e.g. Infinity War [2018]), but for what The Wandering Earth is worth, it’s smarter than, say, The Fast and the Furious (2001-). Frant Gwo’s imaginative science-fiction premise is acceptable Sunday afternoon fun, featuring competent placeholder characters, considerable production values, and a satisfying conclusion.

—> However… Gwo’s screenplay is credited to six other writers besides himself, implying the story had either two many cooks in the kitchen or needed a further rewrite. The Wandering Earth features a bloated ensemble cast, too many pointless set-pieces that don’t progress the plot, and special FX ultimately too mediocre to fully compensate for the movie’s storytelling weaknesses.


? How did the United Earth Government prevent worldwide riots after their survival lottery?

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