Imagine for a moment: You’re Roland Emmerich, and you’ve just wrapped production on 2012. But it’s not enough. It’s never enough. You toss and turn all night. More. You wake up far too early, stumble into the washroom, slam on the light switch, collapse over the sink, and stare long and deep into your own reflection. More. An utterance issues forth from the darkest recess of your soul, the vocalization of a primal, creative urge, a voice that is always punishing, never satiated: “More,” you mutter under your breath.
You’re Roland Emmerich, and the world is not enough.
That’s the restless, wayward energy Frant Gwo brings to The Wandering Earth, billed as China’s first sci-fi blockbuster. The film plays like the sequel to 2012 that nobody asked for but a lot of people (including yours truly) maybe secretly (perversely?) hoped to see. China has been chasing Hollywood standards and success for quite some time now (while Hollywood, incidentally, has been chasing China’s rapidly growing and movie-hungry middle class). Released alongside a large slate of Chinese productions vying for box office dollars during the busy Chinese New Year season, The Wandering Earth is the best movie Roland Emmerich never made. Director Frant Gwo doesn’t so much channel Emmerich as he does reverse-engineer the doomsday maestro’s entire career, dunking on his filmography and rendering him obsolete.
You’re Roland Emmerich, and your entire existence is now redundant.
Based on a short story by Liu Cixin (whose Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy was also making its way to the big screen before hitting production setbacks and delays), The Wandering Earth is set in a far distant future and finds humanity scrambling to save its planet from the inevitable, now imminent, threat of the Sun, as it expands into a Red Giant poised to consume Earth. The governments of Earth unite their resources and build giant rockets to push the planet out of the way, moving it to a neighboring star. No, I did not just make that up. And here’s the kicker: All of this happens in the first five minutes. The film only gets more outrageous from there. The main thrust of the narrative is that Earth needs to use Jupiter’s gravity to slingshot out of the solar system, and just wait until you see what happens in the third act. The Wandering Earth is Troll Physics: The Movie, and it’s every bit as awful and amazing, terrible and terrific, as you could imagine. I paid to see this in IMAX 3D and I simultaneously regret everything and nothing.
The film’s cast will be largely unrecognizable to Western audiences. Only two might stand out: Wu Jing, whose role has shades of Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar, leaving the planet on a mission to save humanity, and leaving his son and daughter behind; and Ng Man-tat, who plays the grandfather looking after Wu Jing’s kids back on Earth. Wu Jing had a brief role in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and has appeared in numerous modern Hong Kong classics, such as Wilson Yip’s SPL. Ng Man-tat, meanwhile, appeared opposite Stephen Chow in many of his films, including Shaolin Soccer. He’s also an accomplished dramatic actor, and those skills come into play here. However, the script is thoroughly lacking, giving the cast little to work with. Wu Jing actually fares better than most, a martial arts star who doesn’t throw a single punch or kick but spends most of the film isolated on a space station, doing everything he can with the trite, melodramatic dialogue handed to him. Ng Man-tat, meanwhile, stumbles alongside his co-stars back on Earth, struggling to scrape together memorable characters or performances.
For the purposes of spectacle, the performances are perhaps serviceable. The biggest problem is slapdash pacing. At times, the film can muster some genuine thrills; but the film more often resembles last year’s Robin Hood debacle, with its poor sense of rhythm and hackwork scene construction. The film also attempts to substitute character development with baldly manipulative, melodramatic flashbacks. It’s cheap and clumsy. On a micro level, the screenplay is poorly written; but on a macro level, on the overall audaciousness of the film’s rollercoaster storytelling, Frant Gwo is able to deliver something surprisingly enthralling. The film has an endearing spirit, depicting humanity clawing its way back from one setback after another; The Wandering Earth routinely brings its characters close to success and then gleefully rips it away again, making them work harder and harder to ensure their own survival. Some of the images conjured up of people setting aside their differences, working together, risking life and limb, and taking gigantic leaps of faith, can be genuinely rousing. It might all be incredibly stupid, but respect where it’s due because this movie works damn hard to entertain.
The Wandering Earth is the sort of film I hesitate to call good, but also want to recommend regardless. Like any number of Roland Emmerich films, it might not be a good movie, but it’s a whole hell of a lot of movie, and the film’s third act is truly a sight to behold. The film careens through numerous influences, blatantly aping 2001: A Space Odyssey in one of its subplots, combining that with the opening sequence of Gravity at one point, offering shades of Interstellar (as mentioned above) and Sunshine at various points, and feeling largely reminiscent of films like The Core. I have not read Liu Cixin’s short story, so I have no idea how much of the tone is being faithfully adapted, or if—like the many movie influences just name-dropped—it blows the whole thing to pieces, running roughshod over everything in its wanton pursuit of big screen spectacle. It would be easy to say it lacks a specific or consistent aesthetic identity (because that’s largely true), but that’s also sort of the point. Frant Gwo doesn’t try to steal from the best and make it his own; he murders all of it in front of our eyes, screaming, “Are you not entertained!?”
I spent most of the running time laughing my ass off, so… sure?
For more coverage of the Chinese New Year movie season, check out Film Era’s reviews for Han Han’s Pegasus and Alan Mak’s Integrity.
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