Chinese cinema has not been as averse to science fiction as some would have it, but it’s true enough that The Wandering Earth (流浪地球, Liúlàng Dìqiú) marks a bold new chapter in its ambitious attempt to take Hollywood on at its own game. Adapting the novel by China’s premier sci-fi author Liu Cixin, Frant Gwo’s third feature is an interesting take on the New Year movie in which new beginnings are sought and families desperately try to reunite to see them in, only this time they do so against the backdrop of impending apocalypse as the universe threatens to swallow us whole.
Far in the future, the vast expansion of the sun will soon consume the Earth. The Wandering Earth project aims to save humanity by attaching jet thrusters to the Earth’s surface to push it out of harm’s way yet this safety measure has also had grave effects on the planet’s climate rendering the surface uninhabitable. 17 years previously, astronaut Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing) left his 4-year-old son behind in the care of his father (Ng Man-tat) to take up a position on the space station intended to safeguard the Earth’s future. Now 21, Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao) has grown up into a resentful, rebellious young man intent on seeing the surface for himself if only not to be home when Peiqiang finally returns to Earth. A natural disaster, however, leaves him stranded with his adopted teenage sister, Duoduo (Zhao Jinmai), just as the Earth is inconveniently drawn into a fatal collision course with Jupiter.
As much about fatherhood as it is about survival of a species, The Wandering Earth centres itself on the angry figure of Liu Qi who has been forced to live his entire adolescence underground and has come to deeply resent the memory of the father who allowed his sickly mother to die and then abandoned him. Peiqiang, meanwhile, has spent 17 years on the space station solely in order to save his son’s future, dreaming of the day they will finally be reunited. He cares little for his own life and has already spiritually handed the baton on to the next generation whose descendants, he hopes, may finally see a kinder sun rise over a new Earth.
This kind of selflessness is also reflected in the film’s refreshingly globalist outlook in which the world, no longer divided, has learned to act as one in order to combat the extreme threat from its own sun. The resistance may be China led, but depends on common endeavour and personal sacrifice. When a last ditch effort is required, the government cannot order its forces away from their families but can offer them the individual choice to keep fighting for survival, bringing teams from all corners of the Earth together as they descend on Indonesia where there just might be a one in a million chance to strike back at Jupiter and escape its gravitational pull.
Meanwhile, Peiqiang is up still up on the space station all alone and powerless while the annoyingly efficient operating system MOSS attempts to frustrate his efforts to save the Earth in service of its own mission to preserve humanity’s legacy. MOSS has made a series of calculations and given up, but giving up is not a very human trait and Peiqiang won’t do it. He makes impassioned speeches to the French-accented global authorities and ponders the best way to ensure his son’s survival even at the cost of his own but finally can only resist by literally attacking the system in overruling MOSS and acting on his own initiative.
A New Year tale through and through, The Wandering Earth is a celebration of family, togetherness, and home but is careful to dial down the patriotism for an insistence on the importance of mutual cooperation between peoples in order to combat existential threat with the spectre of climate change always on the horizon. The point, however, is that it is important to keep hope alive, if not for yourself then at least for others rather than give in to nihilistic despair. The Wandering Earth, grand and ambitious in scale, marks a new dawn of its own in terms of Chinese blockbuster sci-fi and does so with refreshing positivity as it places its hopes in human solidarity and individual sacrifice over jingoism and self-interest.
Currently available to stream on Netflix in the UK and possibly other territories.
Netflix trailer (English subtitles)