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 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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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”).
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.
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.
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?
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.
“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.
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).
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…
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).
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.
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.
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”).
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.
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.