Ruairí McCann Frant Gwo’s ‘The Wandering Earth’ (2019)
Mainland China’s biggest science fiction feature, it’s second highest grossing film to date, is armed with a premise scaled up to match its record-breaking figures. It’s the late 21st century and Earth is on the verge of being consumed by a dying sun. To save it, a worldwide government puts into play a plan involving a network of hemisphere canvassing “Earth Engines” designed to literally propel the planet onward for a 2,500 year journey to a new star system. This introductory exposition is delivered in an exchange between Liu Peiqiang (Chinese superstar Wu Jing) and his young son, Qi (Hexuan Guo), on the eve of this great expedition. Though, for them, it is not just a trek out into the unknown but a parting of ways; Peiqiang will be embarking on a seventeen-year shift on the spacecraft, tasked with travelling ahead of the planet in order to maintain its course. Meanwhile Qi will be joining his grandfather, Han Zi’ang (Ng Man-tat), in one of the many underground cities built to house the surviving population. Jumping seventeen years later with the Earth in the middle of a flyby with Jupiter and Liu is about to be decommissioned. Though he’s filled with trepidation, because it has been ten years since he has spoken with his son, who is now in his early twenties and played by Qu Chuxiao. Any and all attempts at reconciliation, however, are put on hold when a sudden spike in the gas giant’s powerful gravitational field starts to pull Earth towards its surface and assured destruction.
In that brief description alone, there is a crisscross of different science fiction modes in The Wandering Earth / Liu lang di qiu. There is Clarkian hard sci-fi that throws humanity into relief and jeopardy by situating the plot on an interstellar scale, along with an eagerness to root around in jargon where terms such as “roche limit” are audible amidst the din of exposition. Yet it points more often to the softer end of the genre — the unapologetic pulp of the premise, including its taste for bombast, with a central emotional conflict that hinges on a post-pubescent hotshot, who, if not prophesied, then at least seems singularly talented and cocksure but burdened by Daddy issues. It is a character type and quandary that in varying shapes and forms is the bedrock of a large swathe of mainstream science fiction narratives from Star Wars (1977) to Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Which is to say that The Wandering Earth, for the most part, feels very familiar, which isn’t inherently a fault. But neither does it make use of the matter for anything particularly distinctive, often undermining its own machinations. Like when a red-eyed, passive-aggressive AI with an acronym and unsettlingly chilled diction turns from helper to aggressor, it is presented as a twist but feels more like a staid inevitability.
Director Frant seems more at ease once Qi and the plot take to Earth’s glaciated surface, where he can exploit the movie’s scale for set pieces that have stem-winding helter skelter quality. Like when Qi and company meet up with a rescue team, tasked with restarting the now failing earth engines. Their route leads to a race through the maze-like cracks of an ice sheet that has enveloped the remains of Shanghai. As the ice crumbles and bits and pieces of the old world plummet down all around them, they are forced to trundle back and forth through a landscape in flux, where any and possibly every route taken could spell the end. The film does pop often, satisfying with a borderline cartoonish CGI palette. Then, as Jupiter looms closer, there is a surreal sight of its maelstroms, looking like titanic swirls of chocolate milk, stretching across the sky.
These scenes and sights are Frant’s few recourses against a solemnity exerted by another, much larger, authorial voice: the remit to insist on the importance of civil obedience and duty that is held over much of mainstream Chinese cinema by forces from up on high. There is particular pressure placed on the bigger films like The Wandering Earth to be overtly nationalistic, which manifests in this film through insistent displays of China’s paramount place in this one last space race. Most insidiously and turgidly, however, is its attitude towards death, which is initially blasé, for we’re told of the death of the half of the earth’s population in the same tone as the accounts of great engineering feats. Then it becomes the primary fuel for the film’s triumphant panegyrising of collective action, where death is treated as a noble necessity — like kamikaze pilots, as one character pointedly references — a comparison made explicit when characters start dying. For no matter how agonising the circumstances, any and all fear washes away in exchange for a look of acceptance, as if they’ve just been granted a glimpse of nirvana because they’ve done their bit as a cog.
This regimented embrace of self-sacrifice is present in other movies from other countries too, but the emphasis on civic duty over emotionality as the impetus, and how the latter becomes inextricably tied to the former, seems, at least in this decade, to be unique to films made in and sanctioned by the PRC. That it may possibly be irksome is almost beside the point. On its own terms, The Wandering Earth is sabotaged by the film’s lack of emotional weight. Though, with its heavy usage of a braying saccharine score in moments of pronounced pause or eulogy, it goes to great lengths to suggest it is, in fact, there. Emotionality, humanity, is almost entirely absent on the level of performance. For example, Li Guangjie and Qu Jingjing, who play the leaders of the rescue team, seem to be sculpted and misdirected into being charisma vacuums, as super soldiers so sombre and sober-minded to the extent they are free of any frisson and idiosyncrasies. So that when the requisite moments in which they doubt their mission occur, the inner conflict that they are supposedly wrestling with feels completely hypothetical, rather than felt.
The Wandering Earth doesn’t feel as lifeless as the dead-eyed militarism of films like Wolf Warrior (2015) and Wolf Warrior II (2017) (the second of which is the most successful film in Chinese history and where Wu Jing first cut his superstardom as the franchise’s star and director) and the dull Grand Guignol of Operation Red Sea (2018). Yet, it is still trapped by a lack of full-blooded human beings in front of the camera. As an industry it wants to echo the star heavy aspect of the popular cinemas of America and India yet the newer, younger talent rarely seem to stick to the spotlight (“little fresh meat” as they have been evocatively dubbed on forums on the Chinese sector of the internet) and so there is a reliance on those older actors who had already learned and developed their craft and personas within the context of a flourishing Hong Kong cinema of the 1980s and 90s. Their representatives in The Wandering Earth includes Wu Jing but most significantly its greatest asset, Ng Man-tat, who plays the grandfather. Most renowned as a recurring performer in comedic actor and filmmaker Stephen Chow’s films, here his range includes both comedy and dramatics. In terms of the former, he’s an eruptive and rueful presence. While with the latter, he’s able to beautifully convey both the difficulty of processing the departure of his son-in-law and the effect it will have on his grandson just by the way he sinks and stews in a chair and side-eyes the opening heart to heart from his place on the periphery. Though Ng is not the primary player in this scene nor indeed for most of the film, he offers a glimpse of humanity that those who are front and centre profoundly lack.
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