A special effects extravaganza that delivers very solid — if familiar — escapist entertainment.
The Wandering Earth, a first-of-its-kind special-effects-driven Chinese sci-fi blockbuster, was snapped up by Netflix after a ludicrously successful domestic opening and a profitable limited release in North America; it arrives today without much fanfare, but its recognizable brand of blockbuster spectacle will surely entice an audience all the same. And that’s fair enough because while it isn’t going to do much to advance the genre, The Wandering Earth is assured entertainment with genuinely impressive production values, a talented ensemble cast of Mandarin-speaking actors, and an uplifting can-do spirit of international camaraderie reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s The Martian — even if the not particularly subtle undercurrent of Chinese technological and cultural superiority evokes Yimou Zhang’s The Great Wall more than anything else.
Still, The Wandering Earth isn’t the usual chest-puffing party-propaganda you might expect from the Mainland, which is another point in its favor. And the refreshing optimism of its politics and characters helps to offset some of their flatter, more generic quirks; you can still predict most of what’s coming, but you also don’t mind too much, which is usually the sign of well-made escapism.
Anyway, plot: It’s the near-future again, the sun is on its last legs, and the frigid wastelands of Earth can only survive if the entire planet is jettisoned into another galaxy. With most of the withering population crammed into subterranean cities built adjacent to the fusion thrusters being used to propel the planet through space, it’s the job of widowed astronaut Liu Peiqiang (Jing Wu) and his cosmonaut buddy Makarov (Arkady Sharogradsky) to help navigate the Earth out of the solar system. Seventeen years later and with Liu still in orbit but due to return home, a predictable malfunction dumps the Earth in the gravitational pull of Jupiter, leaving a world-ending calamity just hours away and several seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the way of a solution.
On the frozen ground is Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao), Liu’s estranged twenty-something son, who teams up with his adopted teenage sister Duoduo (Zhao Jinmai) and rescue team boss Wang Lei (Li Guangjie) to avert disaster and the sinister machinations of a genre-standard sentient computer called MOSS. This gonzo setup has been adapted from the 2000 novella by acclaimed science-fiction writer Liu Cixin and was probably more scientifically credible in its source, but director Frant Gwo has blended the plot particulars with the wham-bam action of a 90s Roland Emmerich disaster movie to admittedly entertaining effect.
None of this is as emotionally engaging as it is visually stimulating, and despite it being a relative first for Chinese filmmaking its distinct attitude towards international and generational teamwork doesn’t give the film enough of a unique perspective to overwhelm what is first and foremost a showcase for CG effects sprung to life with help from a handful of studios. But The Wandering Earth is undeniably well-made entertainment that rockets along at a very respectable pace, finding enough detail in its world and humanity in its story to impress.