Western movies have been made for a more global audience for years now, whether that’s because the Western cineplex has become about as popular as the Western shopping mall, or because movies studios realize that countries like China are becoming more and more affluent and have just as much a fascination with spectacle blockbusters as we do domestically. Although the souring of the relationship between the US and China has slowed the the former’s acquisition of Hollywood studios like Legendary Pictures (World of Warcraft) and STX Entertainment (Bad Moms, The Foreigner), Hollywood themselves knows that they can’t ignore the gargantuan Chinese marketplace if they want to get any growth for their future projects.
Things don’t usually flow the other way. While Chinese audiences love The Transformers, there aren’t many (if any) Chinese export movies that the average Westerner can name off the top of their head. It remains to be seen if that changes now that China’s second highest grossing domestic film The Wandering Earth has made its direct-to-Netflix debut here in the West.
The Wandering Earth is based on the novella by Hugo Award-winner Lui Cixin. This story won the China Galaxy Science Fiction Award of Year 2000, and the movie has made over $700 million worldwide, making it the third highest grossing science-fiction film of all time. With such a pedigree, the film practically demands any sci-fi fan’s time. Does it deserve the hoopla?
Let’s Roll Out
The gist of the story is that in the somewhat ambiguously near future, the Sun is suddenly expanding towards its red dwarf state. In order to avoid being engulfed by our own star, the nations of Earth band together with an ambitious plan: create over 10,000 “Earth Engines” and basically drive the planet 4.3 light years to Alpha Centauri over the course of about 2,000 years with the remaining population living underground. There is also with the exception of a space-borne platform that serves as the planet’s navigational aide. Naturally, nothing goes according to plan, and things fall apart quickly as Earth succumbs to the gravitational pull of Jupiter.
I don’t really know if this movie has main characters as we know them. It’s also not an ensemble movie. In fact, the bulk of the characters are functional and serve mainly as a pivot point for what the producers felt were more important, more blockbustery elements.
There’s young Liu Qi and his step-sister Han Duoduo, looked after by Lui Qi’s grandfather Han Zi’ang. They live beneath the Beijing Earth Engine while Liu Qi’s father Lui Peiqiang is on assignment aboard the navigation platform. There’s a bunch of other transitory characters in the form of clowns, nerdy scientists, and all-business paramilitary grunts, but not a single character experiences any growth in this movie because The Wandering Earth is all about the CGI.
CGI Gone Wild
Here in the West we’ve gotten to the point where CGI — in moderate amounts — is appreciated, but we also recognize when it’s used as a crutch. We don’t have to be Sir Ian McKellen to look at a scene and wonder where we went wrong as a species. Of course, we used to be in awe when CGI was brand new (I mean after The Lawnmower Man, not because of it), but now we stand up and applaud decisions to use real, honest-to-goodness practical effects like they used to when…eh…that was all they could use.
As proven by The Wandering Earth, China hasn’t reached that point in the bell curve yet. I can’t speak for an entire nation or even the People’s Republic of China’s film-making committee, but this movie literally feels like someone binged all of the MCU movies in one sitting and the only take away was “we can do bigger effects than that”, at which point they proceeded to render render render a series of shots where story serves only as the weak glue to connect them all together.
But I have to say, China is a big country. They have a big population. And their CGI effects are just as big. Knowing– and accepting — this, I found The Wandering Earth to be pretty enjoyable.
Ignore the Premise
The idea that we can drive Earth to a new solar system like the largest-stakes game of Mario Kart ever is simply absurd. It reminds me of the Spongebob Squarepants episode where the citizens of Bikini Bottom voted to physically move the town to another location by picking it up and carrying it like a canoe. That’s a kids show, so I don’t know what this story can use as an excuse. The author has won several notable literary awards, so I guess I can’t argue, especially when I showed up not asking for much more than about 2 hours of escapist entertainment.
Really, once the idea of an untethered planet is out of the picture, we’re left with a “race against time” story which is something that has a high level of built in adrenaline, and is something that is apparently very popular in China. It’s the kind of thing we expect from Michael Bay (whose movies are far more appreciated in China than they are here); we can’t say he’s producing the height of Western cinema, but we might watch his movies and guiltily enjoy them when we stumble upon them while channel surfing.
This is the kind of movie which demands special effects, and while the movie is wall-to-wall with them, they generally work well. The underground cities aren’t designed by someone who has only seen apocalyptic broom closets his whole life, and are nice enough to be what you’d hope you’d end up living in if you were confined underground for the rest of your whole life. The frozen wasteland on the surface isn’t a complete desert; people have to work up there to mine resources to keep the engines running, and it’s presented as a job like any other. Even when the characters are up close and personal with the Earth engines themselves, the fact that they are cheek-to-cheek with the silliest of MacGuffins doesn’t derail the spectacle of “yeah, that’s about the size of something we’d need in order to push the planet around like an air-hockey puck”. The effects, which make up the gross majority of the film, are necessary to present and movie the story, and in that regard they do the job well enough that we can’t fault them for being so bombastic or so omnipresent.
I suspect that some people would look at this movie and frown, either because it’s a foreign film and hence requires subtitles or equally distracting overdub, or because the premise is seriously bonkers and they can’t abide by something so silly being performed so seriously. The Wandering Earth is China’s bankable popcorn film. It’s a blockbuster spectacle not because it’s a must-see sleeper hit, but because these are the kinds of movies that we casually throw away here in the West. For many years China has gladly taken these over-the-top CGI-fests we produce here and has elevated them to the rank of “legitimate theater”; simply, these are the kinds of movies that the Chinese audiences demand and wholeheartedly enjoy without any hint of guilty irony.
I think The Wandering Earth did a good job with what it had, however silly, and provided some good, exciting moments, some poignant moments, and a few chuckle-worthy moments, all wrapped up in some top-notch special effects which for me — someone who showed up to be entertained and not to take notes on improbabilities or gaffes — is what was advertised and was what I wanted to see at the time.
Overall I liked The Wandering Earth. I watched it on a Sunday afternoon when I had nothing else going on, which seems like the perfect time to watch a movie like this. Not all movies need to be high art, and we can totally admit to liking films where things are blowing up and where we feel a real pang of sadness when a good character meets a noble end. This movie provided as much entertainment as I expected to get, which is really all I can ask for.