“The Wandering Earth” (2019) is an ambitious Sino-sci-fi epic that gets a little lost in space…

The current Chinese blockbuster, “The Wandering Earth” (based on a novella by Cixin Liu), is “Armageddon” meets “Snowpiercer,” with a touch of “The Day After Tomorrow.” The entire Earth in peril, engaging leads, a few one-note comedic supporting characters, and tons of action. It’s rubber-stamped box office bank.

Director Frant Gwo puts together an amazing-looking science fiction action opus that easily rivals its western-made counterparts in visuals, action and ambition. And, like many western big budget sci-fi action flicks, “The Wandering Earth” also sports some completely preposterous science in its science fiction (more on that later).

**** JUPITER-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!!****

The Story.

Life’s a beach…

The film opens later in this century, with widowed single dad astronaut Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing) telling his 4 year old son Liu Qi (Qu Chiuxiao) and father-in-law Han Zi’yang (Ng Man-tat, who steals a lot of scenes) that he is off on a long mission. He says this as the family enjoys a last beautiful day at the beach together. Turns out, this is one of Earth’s last beautiful days for awhile as well, since the sun is discovered to be rapidly expanding, and is soon to engulf the entire solar system far earlier than predicted.

Building cities around giant rockets that will move a frozen, dying Earth into an orbit around a planet some 2500 years away…what could possibly go wrong??

An insanely audacious plan involves an internationally coordinated effort to plant giant rocket engines all over the Earth and literally fly it out of the solar system (!); eventually inserting it into orbit around our neighboring star Proxima Centauri in about 2500 years. The plan is so utterly insane that it’d be downright hilarious if it weren’t played with such straight-laced sincerity.

^ They’ve had it up to here

Departing astronaut dad Liu is going to join the crew on a navigation platform/space station (can it still be called a station if it flies independently into outer space?) that will be flying just ahead of the rocketing Earth. Others in the station’s international crew include lighthearted cosmonaut roomie (and future dead meat) Makalov (Arkadiy Sharogradskiy), as well as a morally ambiguous HAL-9000-like computer named MOSS (when has a soft-spoken, omniscient, red-eyed computer ever been a good thing in science fiction?),

17 years later, the audacious plan is under way. The planet’s remaining population is cowered in subterranean cities built around the 100,000 rockets being used to push Earth. Our runaway planet is fast approaching Jupiter for a gravitational perturbation maneuver to help fling it out of the solar system (like a really big NASA space probe).

Snowpiercers. Or is it Ice Truckers?

Qi is a young man now (well-played by Qu Chuxiao), and his grandfather Zi’yang is an older, but still very active driver of giant nuclear rocket fuel transports on the frozen, inhospitable surface of Earth. 14 years earlier, Grandpa Zi adopted an infant who was orphaned when Earth’s oceans froze; the girl is now a gum-smacking middle schooler named DuoDuo (Zao Jinmai).

“Come out to the surface, have a few laughs…”

One day, the bitter, rebellious Xi trips a school alarm in order to steal his kid sister from class for a trip outside onto the surface. Using grandpa’s stolen ID pass and obtaining thermal gear from a sleazy source, they find themselves driving grandpa’s massive transport, going for a joy ride across the frozen wastelands of what was once urban Shanghai.

Uh huuuuuh….

Their joy ride is cut short when they’re captured by the authorities and sent to jail. Grandpa is also busted when he tries to bribe the guard with porn to get them out (!). Sharing a cell, they meet a silly, bumbling fellow prisoner named Tim (American-born actor, Mike Kai Sui); a Sino-Aussie who is the movie’s Jar Jar. Tim provides plenty of yuk-yuks with his towheaded locks, goofy one-liners and hysterical overreactions. During their incarceration, massive earthquakes all over Earth are caused by the tug of Jupiter’s gravity. Tens of thousands of the Earth’s rockets are damaged, causing her to spiral dangerously close to the Jovian gas giant.

Jupiter really sucks

As Earth spirals closer inward (with lessened thrust to counter Jupiter’s gravity well), the frozen atmosphere of Earth is sucked steadily inward toward the massive planet ahead. This isn’t good. Nope. Not at all…

With the walls of the prison crumbling away from the quakes, Xi, DuoDuo and grandpa are unintentionally freed. They also release the obnoxious but harmless Tim as well (who isn’t so bad really, barring the vague sex offense in his past…!). The group makes their way to grandpa’s vehicle, which is now requisitioned by the authorities, who need to to deliver a vital spare part to one of the damaged rockets. Losing the transport to damage from the quakes, the group takes the large igniter into a frozen Shanghai tower, where grandpa is killed trying to help lug the heavy component in an elevator shaft.

“Whose turn is it to replace the AE-35 unit, Dave?”

Ahead of Earth, astronaut Liu realizes all is not kosher when Earth’s course is off, but the navigation platform is still barreling ahead. He and Makalov suit up for an EVA outside of the ship, in an attempt to reach the ship’s computer core for answers. The computer MOSS then kills Makalov in his spacesuit (an homage to HAL9000 and Frank Poole from “2001: A Space Odyssey”).

“Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave?”

A desperate Liu manages to get into the core, where a confrontational MOSS tells him that the platform’s seeming abandonment of Earth is part of the plan. The giant platform was also designed as an ark, in case Earth doesn’t make it. The vessel secretly carries 300,000 human embryos, as well as seeds for thousands of crops to settle a new world. But Liu refuses to give up on his earthbound family, making repeated unsuccessful attempts to contact them. He also takes out MOSS with a single, extremely flammable pint of Makalov’s smuggled vodka…I’m not kidding.

Jupiter rising…

On Earth, the dispirited group of survivors learns that some of the rockets around the world have been repaired, but the Earth is still approaching its Roche limit (the point where Jupiter’s intense gravity will rip it to shreds (like Comet Schumacher-Levy, back in 1994). At the last minute, Xi remembers his dad once telling him that Jupiter is composed largely of hydrogen, and the atmosphere its snatching off of Earth has oxygen. Xi surmises that an ignition source will cause an explosion that could ignite Jupiter; creating a shockwave will blast Earth free from the deadly Jovian gravity.

Because who can resist a sweet kid calling for help, right?

DuoDuo makes a heartfelt, tearful plea for the transport crews of the entire world to come to her group’s aid, in order to help ignite their rocket and create the concussive shockwave. The plan is about as stupid as turning Earth into an interstellar spaceship, but in movie physics it totally works, of course. But…

… the stream of ignited plasma from Earth doesn’t quite reach Jupiter, so astronaut Liu proposes using the platform and its as-yet un-ignited fuel to do the rest, thus obliterating the entire space ark. That ark was supposed to be the human race’s Plan B. Liu’s plan is one more really bad idea in a movie already overflowing with them, but at this point, what the hell, right?

All he needs is Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” playing, and he’s all set…

Father and son reconcile over the radio, as the once-bitter Xi comes to understand the sacrifices his dad made then and now. Dad does an Armageddon/Bruce Willis, and the station, with its volatile fuel, is destroyed. Big explosion ensues, and Earth is blown free to continue on its course to our neighboring star. Life in the subterranean cities of the frozen, star-trekking Earth continues.

The End.

“All the science, I don’t understand…”

The science of the movie (despite alleged science advice from China’s space agency) is fairly dumb. In terms of space science-literacy, “The Wandering Earth” is a few steps up from the cosmic shenanigans of “Space: 1999” or “Armageddon,” but not a whole lot. Rockets that big would likely burrow deeper into the Earth, rather than push the planet like an uphill boulder. Not to mention that taking Earth out of its ‘goldilocks zone’ orbit around the sun would kill us just as surely as an expanding sun would. Stopping all planetary rotation would be extremely difficult to undo, as well (and would have its own disastrous side effects). The freezing void of interstellar space over 2,500 years wouldn’t do our non-rotating, sunless planet any favors, either.

Space shockwaves…a reliable, if highly inaccurate sci-fi trope.

The movie also makes the common, movie-physics mistake of ‘space shockwaves.’ Space (even near-Jupiter space) is primarily a vacuum, with no surrounding atmosphere to propagate a massive shock wave. Earth would have to be inside the Jovian atmosphere to ‘feel’ the effects of an explosive shockwave from Jupiter. But at that range, the Roche limit would’ve already smashed Earth into planetary crumbs, which would fall right into Jupiter’s atmospheric soup (the Roche limit is one thing the movie got very right, indeed).

This is why you don’t leave dad alone too long; sooner or later, he’ll do something stupid.

I also had major issues with the decision to destroy the navigation platform/space-ark, which was humanity’s Plan-B. The space ark, with its hundreds of thousands of embryos and seeds, would stand a much better chance of bringing life to another solar system than a massive, frozen-dead Earth. You can’t just ‘thaw’ all of Earth’s organic matter like so many microwavable meat patties; frozen things eventually expire (try eating a one or two year-old anything out of your freezer…). Most of the organic matter on Earth would be un-restorably dead by the time the planet settles into its new orbit. Destroying the ark (with all its embryos and seeds) in favor of a dying Earth was, to quote ALIENS’ Burke, “a bad call.”

I had other issues with the science, but I only have so many years left to live, so I’ll move on…

Characters/actors.

Some strong performances punctuate the film. Wu Xing carries his scenes well, especially when confronting the MOSS mainframe (it takes real actorly imagination to react emotionally at nothing but a column of screens, switches and cameras).

“This is my hero face…”

His ‘son’, Qu Chiuxiao, makes for a strong lead (especially for such a young actor), and we see his evolution from bitter rebellious kid to planetary savior over the course of the movie’s 2 hour and 5 minute running time.

“This is my WTF face…”

I also enjoyed DuoDuo and (especially) her curmudgeonly adoptive grandpa. Unfortunately, most of the other supporting characters (Makalov, Tim, etc) are primarily one-note, and fall into either ‘trusty sidekick’ or ‘goofy comic relief’ categories.

Visuals.

While the actors are certainly strong enough, it’s the visuals that make this movie really work. The image of thousands of tiny blue points of lights pushing our planet into outer space is well-realized, as are the haunting vistas of a frozen urban Shanghai wasteland (very reminiscent of Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer”).

That’s some gorgeous (red) eye-candy… ^

Jupiter’s ‘great red spot’ (a perpetual storm etched in the planet’s weather bands) gazes upon the Earth’s frigid surface almost like a great predatory dragon in space, gleefully sizing up its next meal.

Rivalling the work of “Interstellar” and “Gravity”…

The spacewalk sequence outside the platform was also quite convincing as well. The movie does an awful lot with its (est.) $50 million budget.

Summing it up.

If you can check your critical thinking at the door and allow yourself to be immersed in the movie’s own brand of illogical-logic, a good time at the movies is to be had with “The Wandering Earth.” A few strong performances and high-end visuals elevate the utter insanity of the movie’s premise. The production values are easily on a par with the best of western sci-fi cinema, including “Gravity,” “The Martian,” or “Interstellar.” It’s not terribly surprising that the action-heavy Chinese film has raked in over $600 million (and counting) in global box office receipts.

“The Wandering Earth” may get a bit lost in space at times, but it does so in an entertainingly audacious way.


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2 Comments Add yours

  1. mars says:

    This movie was supposed to base on Liu Cixin’s short novel with the same name, but virtually none of the major plot in the movie ever occur in the novel, but about the plan B in the move, well, it was explained in the novel why the spaceship was not an option:

    With great care, Ms Xing produced the real glass sphere from a small box. The shrimp floated on the water’s surface, dead. The water itself had gone a dismal shade of cloudy and the rotting algae inside had lost their green, and had now turned into a dead, woolly substance covering the coral.

    “This small world is dead. Children, who can tell me why?” Ms. Xing asked, showing us the lifeless sphere.

    Someone quickly called out an answer. “It is too small!”

    Ms. Xing smiled and nodded. “You are right; it is too small. A small biosphere, no matter how precisely designed, can never withstand the test of time. It is no different with the vessel that the Spaceship Faction imagines.”

    “We could build a spaceship the size of Shanghai or New York,” Tung retorted, his voice subdued, his eyes on the sphere.

    “That is true, but that would be the limit of our current technology and compared to the Earth, such a biosphere would still be very small,” Ms. Xing replied gently. “Too small, in fact.”

    “We can find a new planet,” Tung countered.

    “Even your faction does not really believe that,” Ms. Xing said. “There are no available planets in Centaurus. The nearest fixed star with an available planet is eight-hundred-fifty light-years away. Even the fastest ship we can build can travel no more than zero-point-five percent of the speed of light. At that speed it would take us one-hundred seventy-thousand years just to get there. The spaceship’s biosphere would not even be able to last a tenth of that. Children, only an ecological system the size of Earth, with its vigorous and all-encompassing biosphere, can exist in perpetuity. Should humanity leave Earth to travel across the universe,” she said, concluding her impassioned explanation, “it would be no different from an infant leaving its mother in the middle of a desert!”

    “But,” Tung said, pausing before he continued in an almost pleading tone, “teacher, it’s too late for us and too late for Earth. It is too late for it to reach sufficient speed and to make it far enough away. The Sun is about to explode!”

    Ms. Xing would have none of that sort of talk. “It is not too late,” she told him, and us as we all listened in. “We must trust the Unity Government! How many times have I told you? Even if you don’t believe, even if worst comes to worst, ‘At least humanity died with pride, fighting to the end!’ ”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing that! Fills in a lot of the movie’s blanks. 👍👏

      Like

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