Netflix is currently streaming the pandemic-delayed Korean space fantasy “Space Sweepers” (2021), originally known as “Seungriho” (“Starship Victory”). The film is a space-western action adventure with many familiar elements whose characters and heart keep it together when some of its other parts don’t quite add up.
Directed and cowritten by Sung-hee Jo (“A Werewolf Boy”), the film depicts a grimy, desperate future, where a dying Earth’s population looks spaceward for opportunities. Buoyed by Chinese financing and with visual effects by the team which produced China’s visually impressive space epic “The Wandering Earth”, “Space Sweepers” certainly looks every inch the big budget blockbuster.
******SPACE STATION-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!!******
“Space Sweepers” (aka “Seungriho”/”Spaceship Victory”).
From a suffocating Earth choking on its own pollution, workers board tethered space elevators to a large, round orbiting space junkyard owned by UTS (a sort of corporate United Nations). In space, this international consortium of scavengers eke out a living by using ships equipped with pitons, grapplers and tow cables to collect space garbage for living money. The work is hard, fast and dangerous, but 130 years of humanity’s presence in space have left Earth orbit an endless supply of space debris, including a giant deadly cloud of cosmic garbage (and deadly nanobots) in Lagrange space between the Earth and the moon. The UTS space station is run by artificially youthful, 150-something year old UTS CEO James Sullivan (Richard Armitage), whose dream of terraforming Mars with a ‘perfect society’ makes him the perfect love child of Elon Musk and Bond villain Hugo Drax.
Note: Lagrange is an orbital slot where the fixed gravitational attraction between two larger bodies provides a stable, balanced orbit. This is a real thing in celestial mechanics. The movie’s future imagines a scenario where decades of dead satellites and spent space weapons have accelerated Kessler syndrome, where the smashing together of objects at high orbital speeds causes a chain reaction. 2013’s “Gravity” illustrates a scientifically questionable, if emotionally correct depiction of Kessler syndrome. In the real world, recent Russian missile interception tests on inactive satellites have also massively contributed to this ongoing problem.
One of the best among this association of space pirates is the spaceship “Victory” and its motley crew of colorful characters— Captain Jang (Kim Tae-ri), a rootless, hard-drinking girl who once tried to assassinate Sullivan; pilot Kim Tae-ho (Song Joong-ki) a former genius commander in the UTS armed forces who resigned after a massacre left him permanently disillusioned, and ship’s engineer Tiger Park (Jin Seon-kyu), a former drug dealer fleeing prosecution on Earth. Rounding out the crew is a robot named “Bubs” (Yoo Hae-jin), the ship’s maintenance droid who is saving money for gender confirmation modifications (think “Rogue One”‘s K2-SO but greedy as well). The crew’s dreams of scoring big are forever overshadowed by the cloud of debt that follows them wherever they go, barely earning them money to feed themselves. While robot Bubs hopes expensive skin grafts will finally help it transition to female, pilot Kim needs funds to help locate his lost adopted daughter, who was separated from him during a disastrous cosmic collision. The lost girl can be located by UTS tracking resources—but only for the right price, of course.
Note: The excesses and evils of runaway capitalism without safety nets are well-illustrated in this movie, which sees money needed for humanitarian rescues and other once ‘basic’ human needs.
After outracing several other scrap-collector “sweepers” for a prized ship drifting dangerously close to the Lagrangian debris cloud, the Victory snags the vessel and tows it in for salvage. One of the many international competitors include a handsome Frenchman named Pierre (Kevin Dockry) who has an unrequited crush on Capt. Jang. Taking the vessel in, the crew does an inspection of the hull, when they see movement in a cargo hold full of white spheres…
Note: The international collection of fellow sweepers are thumbnail sketches of their various nations reduced to national stereotypes; the amorous Frenchman, the foul-mouthed American, the Russian in an Ushanka hat, the blunt German, etc. I get why this was done; these are secondary characters, and sometimes the easiest way to remember a secondary character is to reduce them to a few traits (i.e. “the guy in the funny hat”). Yes, it’s cliche, but it works when storytelling time is of the essence.
Shining a light on the movement within the found vessel’s cargo hold, they come across a little girl in a spacesuit (Ye-Rin Park) and immediately take her inside, assuming her to be orphaned. After cleaning her up, the crew hears a falsified UTS bulletin warning of a dangerous, child-shaped robot with a built-in thermonuclear device named “Dorothy,” who has escaped from government custody. UTS also offers a handsome reward for the child’s return; however, a fringe terrorist group, the Black Foxes, also seek the girl for a reward as well.
Note: Giving the child the code name “Dorothy” (not her real name, of course) sets up an interesting parallel with “The Wizard of Oz,” which also featured a lost little girl who befriends a group of eccentric characters. More on that after the synopsis…
Bubs and Tiger immediately warm up to the child, despite the danger of her possibly exploding on them (!). Capt. Jang is a bit more cautious, as is traumatized veteran (and parent) Tae-ho, who wants nothing to do with Dorothy. Tae-ho unsentimentally suggests negotiations with the Black Foxes, since UTS often cheats “non-citizens” like themselves (something he knows all too well trying to locate his daughter).
Note: Making Tae-ho, Jang, Tiger and Bubs ‘non-citizens’ is also a nice shorthand for labeling this loser crew as outsiders; just as Mal and the crew of the Firefly-class transport “Serenity” were on the losing side of a solar-system wide civil war. More on that later as well…
Nervous that every move Dorothy makes might ‘set her off,’ Capt. Jang and particularly Tae-ho choose to give the little girl a wide birth. However, Bubs and Tiger get even closer to the new passenger, ignoring the question of whether she’s a robot-weapon or not. There are some cute comic moments when the child’s threat of a sneeze or a fart are assumed to be the ‘weapon’ arming itself.
Note: Funny metaphors for the ‘dangers’ of parenting, as the crew tiptoe around the pint-sized ‘weapon’ Dorothy. But no one could ignore Ye-Rin Park’s “Dorothy” for long, since the young actress is simply adorable. Yes, Dorothy is clearly there to pull at the audience’s heartstrings, but so what? All movies and other mass entertainment are forms of emotional manipulation.
Meanwhile, the ship’s former drug-dealing mechanic Tiger has become like an uncle to the little girl; unafraid to play with her, and show her the affection the others withhold. Naturally Dorothy loves Tiger’s long dreadlocks and tattoos. Dorothy further ingratiates herself to the crew by drawing crayon portraits of them as well.
Note: Jin Seong-kyu plays the hell out of Tiger, making him both physically imposing and big-hearted as well. I do find it weirdly anachronistic that Tiger has to manually start the spaceship’s engines by physically cranking what appears to be a giant fuel-burning turbine right out of the RMS Titanic. I realize it’s meant to make the ship and her crew more ‘gritty’ (and that this movie is a fantasy), but it also looks a bit ridiculous. I mean, you don’t see current space capsule crews shoveling solid rocket fuel into their boosters, let alone more advanced spaceships of the year 2092. Does the Victory also have oars for emergency rowing, too?
One of the more touching scenes comes when Dorothy bonds with the cynical, greedy ship’s robot Bubs. She immediately refers to Bubs with a feminine pronoun. The android self-identifies as female, and is surprisingly moved by Dorothy’s acute perception. Bubs can’t believe that Dorothy is a robot because her ‘skin grafts’ look too perfect. The two girls further bond over a makeup session as Bubs applies insane levels of lipstick, rouge and eyeshadow to the little girl.
Note: Making the ship’s android a trans-woman is progressive, certainly, though it might’ve been less of a punchline if we saw a trans member of the human crew instead. That said, I applaud the movie for its unexpectedly enlightened views on both trans rights (a very real issue) and robot rights (an as-yet hypothetical one).
Using a voice disguising device, Tae-ho places a call to the Black Wolves and arranges a pickup at a crowded nightclub on the UTS station; the girl for two million dollars—no questions asked. Before they can get to the rendezvous, they are harassed by a police spacecraft and are boarded for inspection. With Dorothy hidden in the toilet compartment, the cop has a wad of cash placed in his hand by one of the crew, which Capt. Jang points out was captured on security cameras and might be interpreted as accepting a bribe. The flustered cop quickly leaves, and the crew make their scheduled rendezvous at the club—though some are having second thoughts.
Needless to say, the trade goes south. The crew deliver an empty sack, realizing Dorothy has somehow escaped and is loose in the club. Hidden soldiers spot the child, whose eyes turn an eerie shade of blue as she envelops herself in a protective shield. During the confusion, Capt. Jang realizes that one of the people calling out for Dorothy referred to her by the Korean name of “Kot-nim.” The crew eventually finds Dorothy and takes her back to the ship. They revive the unconscious Kot-nim, who awakens with the sound of a healthy fart—thus earning her Bubs’ new monicker of “little fart machine.” Jang tells her crew what some of them have suspected already— Kot-nim is not a robot; she is a human girl modified with nanobots which give her amazing abilities, such as creating shields, and speeding up growth in plants. Kot-nim was given the nanoprobes by her physician father in a desperate attempt to save her life (she was born with a congenital condition). Her father didn’t anticipate her system becoming a fertile ground for the nanobots, which now gives her these superhuman abilities.
Note: The failed trade at the seedy club, as well as the ‘outing’ of Dorothy/Kot-nim’s powers is very reminiscent of psychic supergirl River Tam’s beating up an entire nightclub full of shady patrons on the planet Beaumonde in the 2005 “Firefly” spinoff feature film, “Serenity.” “Firefly/Serenity” and “Space Sweepers” share much in common, beyond their space western motifs.
During the interrogation of a failed operative, UTS CEO James Sullivan reveals that he wants to crash the massive orbiting UTS space station-junkyard directly into the Earth, rendering the planet uninhabitable. With the bulk of humanity dead on a dying Earth, Sullivan will then have an ideally-sized, hand-picked human colony for permanent settlement of Mars. Kot-nim’s farmed nanoprobes have been used to quickly terraform Mars, while the remaining nanobots in Kot-nim’s system (a threat to Sullivan’s plan) will be destroyed by a hydrogen bomb in the station’s core after he kidnaps her. Threatening to harm a kid = instant audience boos and hisses.
Note: The villainous Sullivan’s plan to create a new ‘perfect society’ from the ashes of the old is hardly new to either historians or Bond fans, but former “Hobbit” dwarf prince Richard Armitage seems to have fun with the role, even though it never scratches beyond surface cliches. The reddening of the 150-something year old Sullivan’s face and extremities whenever he’s angry reminded me of Paul Bettany’s similarly ‘anger faced’ character of “Dryden Voss” in “Solo: A Star Wars Story” (2018).
Tae-ho begins to appreciate Kot-nim as the two of them sell fresh tomatoes grown on the ship with the help of her nanobots, earning both of them a few needed bucks. Masked individuals begin to follow Kot-nim, leading to an all-out brawl between the crew of the Victory and the Black Foxes. After the Victory crew and the Black Foxes knock the crap out of each other for awhile (gotta fill that action quotient, after all) the de-masked gang are revealed to be fellow space sweepers from different nations. Turns out the Black Foxes are actually trying to protect Kot-nim from Sullivan’s plan. The former rivals now realize they have a common cause, and the Black Foxes agree to locate Kot-nim’s pop and reunite them as soon as possible.
Note: Once again borrowing an element we saw in “Solo,” the bad-ass space pirate group Black Foxes are revealed to be environmentally conscious good guys, just as the infamous “Cloud Riders” in “Solo” were revealed to be displaced inhabitants of Imperial-occupied planets who were funding the nascent Rebel Alliance. Of course, this is also a trope used very often in old westerns, when a feared tribe of Native American “injuns” would be revealed as good guys later on as well.
Things quickly go to hell shortly after Kot-nim is briefly reunited with her dad, as UTS soldiers (clad in high-tech exoskeletal armor) ambush the reunion, killing Kot-nim’s dad as well as some of the Black Foxes, yet keeping the Victory crew alive—for a final bribe attempt. CEO Sullivan makes one last appeal to Tae-ho for his own adopted daughter, who is believed to be still alive in space. Sullivan doubles the Black Foxes’ earlier offer—$4 million for Kot-nim, no questions asked. For that, Tae-ho will be made a UTS citizen (effective immediately) and have ample funds to locate his daughter—which can be done in a matter of minutes for the right price.
A broken Tae-ho accepts Sullivan’s Faustian bargain, and takes the obscene pile of cash before him. Offering to split the now-doubled bounty with his shipmates, Tae-ho learns they want nothing to do with Sullivan’s blood money, and are focused solely on rescuing Kot-nim.
Note: The final Faustian deal between Tae-ho and Sullivan, as the younger man surrenders to his own desperation for money, is well-acted and executed. It is easily the most dramatically potent scene in the entire film, which is otherwise kept at a shallower, “Star Wars” level of action-adventure for the most part.
Ashamed by his own part in Kot-nim’s abduction, Tae-ho changes his mind and goes all in with his shipmates, who formulate a plan to rescue Kot-nim from the core of the UTS space station. Once the bomb detonates and kills Kot-nim, the station itself will begin to fall towards Earth—causing an extinction-level event in its impact. Boarding the station with some Black Foxes as backup, the crew successfully fights their way into the core and locates the kidnapped Kot-nim. However, Jang and a battle-weary Tiger soon realize that the hydrogen bomb cannot be defused. Their only hope is to fly Kot-nim to a minimum safe-distance of 5,032 kilometers away from the bomb, while the Victory crew risks their own lives to remove the bomb from the station’s core—which they hope to detonate harmlessly in space. As they plan to take Kot-nim to safety, they are interrupted by a vicious, cybernetic super-soldier. Tiger seals himself into an airlock with the killer cyborg so the others will be safe. After a lengthy combat, a bloodied, exhausted Tiger finally ejects the female super soldier into the void. Tiger then gives Bubs her now severed hand (a gag lifted directly from “Star Trek: First Contact”). They are good to go.
Note: Have I mentioned that Tiger is my favorite character? No? Well, he is…
The film’s final space battle becomes a wild, but visually confusing “Star Wars-meets-Gravity”-style mess as the remaining Black Fox scavengers take on the UTS fighter ships with grappling hooks and tow cables, while the Victory takes the hydrogen bomb as far out into space as possible. Meanwhile, Sullivan beams his image down to Earth to make a godlike holographic announcement of his plan to move humanity to Mars, which is interrupted by Capt. Jang playing audio of Sullivan’s earlier bribe to Tae-ho, which reveals his plan to destroy Earth in order to resettle a new ‘master race’ on a terraformed Mars. This turns the public tide against Sullivan.
Note: This film (once again) borrows very heavily from the 2005 movie, “Serenity,” particularly the messy final space battle between the Alliance forces (the UTS troops) and the Reavers (who’ve been recast with the far more benign Black Foxes). That space battle also saw the Reavers using grappling hooks, harpoons and tow cables to destroy spaceships. Captain Jang also broadcasts the villain’s true intentions across the universe—which is what Mal did in “Serenity”, when he broadcast proof that the Alliance created the Reavers.
Sullivan then goes full Darth Vader. Flying his own combat craft, Sullivan wants to personally kill Tae-ho for double-crossing him and take Kot-nim by force. Intercepting the Victory, he learns that Kot-nim is not onboard; she has been taken to safety earlier by Captain Pierre, who would do anything for Captain Jang (even sing terrible love songs). Sullivan is thwarted once again. Tae-ho and Tiger take the controls and manage to give the ship’s boosters a massive surge, putting Victory (with the bomb aboard) well out of range of Kot-nim. The crew is ready to die as the bomb goes off. However, Kot-nim has summoned a massive swarm of nanobots from the surrounding Lagrangian cloud to envelop the ship and protect it from the blast. Kot-nim’s newfound family aboard the Victory are safe. Sullivan is killed in the explosion. The Force will be with you … always.
Note: Even the cockpit of Sullivan’s fighter craft has an Imperial TIE fighter vibe about it...
The epilogue offers a mega-happy ending for all, and sets up a possible sequel for this crew of characters. Bubs finally affords her new female skin grafts (now played by Hyang-gi Kim), choosing to retain her masculine-sounding voice for now. Kot-nim is using her super-horticultural abilities to replant trees on the resuscitating Earth, as the crew welcomes her into their family. Tae-ho is also able to psychically connect with Kot-nim’s mind and say a final farewell to his own lost daughter, whom he learns didn’t survive long after the accident. Saying his goodbye to the past, Tae-ho embraces the future with his new family.
Note: Good point about Kot-nim and company cleaning up Earth instead of trying to fully terraform Mars. Mars lacks a magnetic field, and terraforming attempts might not last too long without one. As Neil deGrasse Tyson pointed out, it makes much more sense to fix a mismanaged ecology than to try and create an entirely new one elsewhere.
“Space Sweepers” is an unapologetic mix of elements from “Star Wars,” “Gravity,” “Firefly,” “Cowboy Bebop,” and even “The Wizard of Oz.” The Star Wars influences are obvious—nearly every major space opera of the past 40 years owes some minor (or major) debt to George Lucas’ fantasy saga. “Space Sweepers” has the whiz-bang space battles, the smart-ass android, the large rounded space station, the fully armored troopers, etc. So many films have borrowed elements from Star Wars over the last 44 years that it may be difficult for younger audiences to spot them when they occur. Since I’m old enough to remember what movies were like before Star Wars burst into the suburban mutliplexes, I can also remember how that film’s arrival was a paradigm shift in entertainment that I’d never before experienced.
Note: And, of course, Star Wars itself admittedly borrowed from sources such as the “Buck Rogers” and “Flash Gordon” serials of the 1930s, as well as the canon of Akira Kurosawa films (“The Hidden Fortress,” “Seven Samurai”). George Lucas’ genius was in taking these various sources and coating them with a high-tech layer of special effects magic.
The visual aesthetic of “Space Sweepers” also owes something to Alfonso Cuaron’s violent Earth orbit epic “Gravity” (2013), which was one of the first major feature films to deal with the issues of Kessler Syndrome; colliding satellites creating a halo of dangerous, fast-moving debris in Earth orbit. Most of the heavier pieces ejected in orbit, such as spent boosters or deorbited satellites, tend to burn up harmlessly in the atmosphere, but smaller pieces can remain. Those smaller pieces, moving around 17,500 miles per hour in vacuum, can put a hole through a manned spaceship at those speeds. It’s not hard to imagine a late-21st century where the task of cleaning up the vast fields of debris orbiting the Earth would be a dangerous job indeed.
The general arc of “Space Sweepers” story borrows heavily follows that of “Firefly”; a crew of on-the-run space scavengers and outlaws risk their lives to protect a super-powered girl from the evil intentions of an exploitive government. River Tam is essentially Kot-nim with about 10 years or so added to her age. The corrupt Alliance (winner of the stellar Civil War) is very similar to the one-corporation/one-government UTS, which treats ‘non-citizens’ as second class human beings. Malcolm Reynolds is also similar to protagonist Tae-ho; both are embittered ex-soldiers who are trying to live down their painful pasts—the memories of which trigger deep-seated emotions for them. “Firefly” also has Jane, the ship’s hired muscle, who is somewhat less lovable (and much less intelligent) than reformed drug dealing ship’s mechanic, Tiger Park. Just about the only “Space Sweeper” character missing from the “Firefly” ensemble was an android seeking gender affirmation.
Note: It’s arguable that “Firefly” itself borrowed from the popular 1990s Japanese anime “Cowboy Bebop” (1998-1999) which also featured a crew of motley space characters settling on the rocky worlds of the outer solar system after Earth is rendered uninhabitable. While I’ve not yet seen this series, my wife is a fan and has filled me in on some of the similarities.
One of the perhaps less obvious influences of “Space Sweepers” was 1939’s classic adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz.” Both “Wizard of Oz” and “Space Sweepers” feature young girls (Dorothy Gale, Dorothy/Kot-nim) befriending an eccentric crew of characters who become their newfound families. Both Dorothys also have evil presences stalking them (Wicked Witch of the West, James Sullivan) and both are sought for something magical which was given to them (the ruby slippers, the restorative nanobots); these magical accoutrements were not of their choosing, either. While Dorothy Gale eventually wakes up safe at home in Kansas (her entire visit to Oz being a fever dream), Dorothy/Kot-nim settles in with her newfound family at the end of their adventure together. Both Dorothys come to realize that home is where you choose to make it.
Summing It Up.
Clocking in at 2 hours and 16 minutes, “Space Sweepers” feels a bit overlong (by about 20 minutes), though it has just enough odd charm and eccentric characters to keep an audience onboard for the ride. While not exactly the most original or innovative sci-fi flick ever made (*cough*), “Space Sweepers” is also far from the worst. This movie doesn’t seek to reinvent sci-fi genre trappings–it playfully wallows in them. It might go down a little easier with some fresh popcorn, too.
“Space Sweepers” can be safely streamed at home via Netflix. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are around 559,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, several vaccines have been developed and inoculations have began in earnest (I myself have just received my second shot of Moderna vaccine as of this writing), but it will take time for a healthy level of world immunity. Even with vaccines, the overall situation is not fully safe. Many questions remain regarding the coronavirus variants, or if vaccines fully prevent unwitting transmission from an asymptomatic carrier. So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded (and unmasked) outings as much as possible. If fully vaccinated, some gatherings and less-crowded social events are possible.
Take care, follow CDC guidelines and be safe.