The Best-Laid Planets
Of all the cinematic trash I have a soft spot for, few genres are closer to my heart than the save-the-world disaster movie. Give me your Armageddons, your Day After Tomorrows, your Cores; I cherish them all. I suspect that’s because the genre is one that so readily lends itself to corniness; how can one be expected to tackle a premise as melodramatic as saving the world without, well, melodrama?
And believe you me, The Wandering Earth doesn’t skimp on the melodrama. Free from the self-conscious snark that has crept into its American counterparts in recent years (see the lame 2012), it’s laughably, lovably sincere, playing its hackneyed narrative beats with such a straight face that it’s impossible to resist.
But first, the plot. In the not-so-distant future, the sun is rapidly dying, causing humanity to band together in the creation of the titular project: a globe-spanning system of massive engines designed to fly the earth (yes, you read that right) on a 2500-year journey to the next-closest planetary system. A fraction of humanity is selected by lottery to live on in underground cities, while access to the uninhabitably cold surface is granted only to fuel miners and engine workers.
Our hero is Liu Peiquiang (Wu Jing), an astronaut on board the space station orbiting Earth. In the prologue, just before the earth is launched, he departs for space after saying goodbye to his young son Qi (Qu Chuxiao), leaving him in the charge of his father-in-law Han Zi’ang (Ng Man-tat). Cut to seventeen years later; Peiqiang is nearly finished with his tour of duty in space, while back on Earth, Qi has grown into quite the rebel, taking unsanctioned trips to the surface with his adopted younger sister Han Duodo (Zhao Jinmai).
Suddenly, trouble strikes! As the earth begins to pass Jupiter, it’s unexpectedly pulled in by the gas giant’s massive gravitational field, causing devastating earthquakes that disable a number of planetary engines. While most of the them are quickly repaired, one key engine in Indonesia remains offline. Now it’s up to Qi and a ragtag group of scientists and soldiers to get the engine back online and save the world. Assisting from above is Peiquiang, who must contend with the space station’s murderous HAL-like AI.
Even for its genre, The Wandering Earth’s plot can be stunningly lazy. Midway through the movie, the mission is declared dead because of the loss of a key mechanical component; moments later, Qi and co. discover a perfectly viable replacement just a short drive away. Later, around the time the final countdown to the Earth-Jupiter collision begins (and you’d better believe there’s a literal ticking clock), the people with the exact abilities needed to get the engine back online are alive and accounted for, including a hacker who had previously written a program perfect for getting around the engine software’s security. Talk about lucky! As for the several anonymous soldiers, well, let’s just say they won’t be appearing in the sequel.
Once it gets going, The Wandering Earth consists of two types of scenes: massive set-piece and emotional bludgeoning. It pulls off the former with respectable skill; the cosmic action sequences achieve the awesome scale they’re going for, though the CGI for smaller objects like vehicles is iffy. In its second half, the movie nearly overdoses on sappy monologues set to hushed, plaintive piano music. Like everything else, they’re handled with the delicate touch of a Kodiak bear, each one longer and more obvious than the last. On multiple occasions, characters scream to the heavens the names of those who have just nobly sacrificed themselves, because in a movie like this, you gotta have noble sacrifices.
It certainly helps that the actors sell this ridiculous material with everything they’ve got, though the gravitas wears thin at times. As a countermeasure, the movie introduces Tim (Mike Sui), a goofy civilian who finds himself along for the action. Tim is given precious little to do in regards to the mission itself; ‘Comic Relief’ might as well be his official job title. Sui is no slouch in the role, screaming, gesticulating, and mugging like his life depends on it whenever he’s on screen. It’s a shameless sledgehammer of a performance; in other words, a perfect fit for this movie.
I won’t spoil the ending here, but I will say that the various story turns of The Wandering Earth are likely to surprise absolutely no one. You’ve seen this all before, and that’s part of the movie’s comfort-food appeal. The only distinguishing aspect of The Wandering Earth is its country of origin, and that’s fine by me. Because for all its faults – of science, of plot, of character – The Wandering Earth unquestionably delivers where it counts. I came to this movie for jaw-dropping spectacle, apocalyptic stakes, and dashing heroics, and damn if I didn’t get them. But perhaps the movie’s most inspiring takeaway is the knowledge that despite our differences, China and America are equally capable of producing save-the-world megacheese.