This review may have mild spoilers.
CHiNOY TV Reviews: With the Chinese box office becoming one of the biggest in the world, Chinese filmmakers are ready enough to tell bolder stories, so it’s not a surprise that we’ll eventually get a big-budgeted science fiction movie. The Wandering Earth is, for better or worse, what is possibly the future of Chinese blockbuster cinema looks like. Its ambitions are bigger, the special effects are more evident, and the scale is larger than ever.
Based on a novella from Liu Cixin, The Wandering Earth is set in a world where the Sun is dying, so the Earth’s united governments develop massive engines and thrusters to propel the planet out of the atmosphere and into a new solar system they could call home. Along the way, the planet suddenly is pulled into a collision course with Jupiter. The story splits into two stories: astronaut Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing) is on a space station to help guide the Earth in their journey, while his embittered son Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao), adoptive daughter Han Duoduo (Zhao Jinmai), and father-in-law Han Zi Ang (Ng Man-Tat) are unintentionally pulled into the mission to save the world.
The characters are unfortunately not given much development throughout the film, but the over-qualified cast delivers the best with what they’ve got, and sometimes that’s all you need in an action-filled movie like this. Rising stars Qu Chuxiao and Zhao Jinmai bring a refreshing wonder as Qi and Duoduo, two rebellious children who realize they’re not quite ready to face what’s outside. Comic legend (and Stephen Chow sidekick) Ng Man-Tat brings a regal and paternal presence as Zi Ang. Known for his action-heavy roles such as the billion-grossing Wolf Warrior franchise, Wu Jing shows a softer, more emotional side than his usual roles as Peiqiang, who’ll stop at nothing to protect his son and meet him again. Even if they rarely share the screen, Peiqiang and Qi’s relationship and impending reunion are the beating heart of The Wandering Earth, propelling the story forward and keeping it grounded when it threatens to go off-the-rails.
The movie does go crazy many times, tiptoeing the line from awestruck action scenes to Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich-level chaos. It doesn’t help that the film pulls too much from its American counterparts. The space sequences borrow from Sunshine, Interstellar, Gravity, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, while the journey on Earth has glimpses and story beats from The Day After Tomorrow, Armageddon, and even Vertical Limit. For having such a rich premise, I wish the film would showcase more originality in what they’re presenting.
Thankfully, director Frant Gwo has confidence in plotting effects-heavy action sequences, such as a gravity-pulled earthquake, a breathtaking space-jump, and the movie’s climactic, emotional ending. Gwo has a certain love for science fiction that is on display from the first frame until the last. The story doesn’t make sense most of the time, and some efforts to add sentimental moments and Chinese values feel forced, but you’ll easily forgive the movie’s shortcomings as the relentless action keeps audiences entertained.
The film is a science-fiction disaster movie, so thankfully the visual effects are stellar. The future as depicted in the story may be desolate, but there’s a certain beauty in the production design, from the sprawling underground city of Beijing to the icy wastelands of Shanghai. The movie truly shines when it pauses so the viewers could admire the top-notch computer-generated scenery, riddled with so much detail and care that rivals its Western counterparts.
The Wandering Earth is Chinese cinema’s biggest effort to show that they’re capable of developing effects-heavy science fiction movies. It could use a more fleshed-out story and characters, and a lot more originality, but it largely succeeds due to its sheer earnestness, the great cast, the gorgeous visual effects, and the fast-paced action sequences. Just like with every good popcorn movie, it sucks you in, holds tight, and never lets go.
The Wandering Earth is available to watch on Netflix.