You Should Absolutely Go See Chinese Sci-Fi Blockbuster ‘The Wandering Earth’

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll probably have noticed that an emerging trend in Hollywood blockbusters is the Chinese coproduction. Large shark movie The Meg, for example, was made with both Chinese and Hollywood cash, and as a result featured a Chinese lead (Li Bingbing) and a huge setpiece on a beach in Hainan. The reasons for these projects are many and varied but the core idea is simple: there’s a huge moviegoing population in China, and getting your movie into that market is almost guaranteed to be profitable.

China itself has a thriving film industry which dates back to the so-called ‘Hollywood of the East’ era of Hong Kong, but it tends not to produce films in the ‘blockbuster’ mode audiences in the West are familiar with – i.e. wildly expensive, big action spectacle movies that are guaranteed to get bums on seats across the world and make bucketloads of cash.

All of this is just background for a very simple recommendation: you must go and see The Wandering Earth, which is in select Aussie cinemas now.

Made on a solid $50 million budget, this adaptation of cult sci-fi author Liu Cixin‘s novella is China’s first bona fide sci-fi blockbuster, and I can confirm – having sat through an absolutely packed screening at Sydney’s Event Cinemas – that it is bucketloads of incredible, stupid fun. It leans hard on the operatic, absurd sci-fi concepts which make up less and less of Hollywood’s output in the era of guaranteed cinematic franchises.

Here’s the basic idea: the Sun is expanding at an alarming rate, and is set to kill us all if nothing is done about it. So, a newly-established one-world government makes a fairly absurd decision: it will strap eleven thousand rockets to the surface of the Earth, turning the planet into a gigantic spaceship, and blasting us into a new, safer solar system. Halting the Earth’s rotation caused tidal waves which killed a chunk of the population, and the distance from the sun has frozen the surface, leaving what remains of mankind to huddle in underground cities beneath the so-called planetary thrusters. Problem: the Earth’s trajectory is sending it straight towards Jupiter, which it will crash into.

That’s the background for a marginally more grounded main plot, which bounces between two astronauts on a space station which is leading the wandering Earth, and a ragtag group back on the planet’s surface who embark on a mission to dodge Jupiter. No spoilers, but it gets very silly.

Directed by Frant Gwo, the movie will be exceptionally familiar to anyone who has watched a Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster over the past twenty or thirty years. It doesn’t stray too far from the established model, but it’s so operatic that it’s impossible not to like. The special effects are also pretty great, and the image of Earth being turned into a literal big-ass spaceship is not one I am set to forget. Some genuinely original imagery there. Among all the crash-bang-woohoo spectacle, there are elements of the more contemplative, slow strands of American sci-fi, the likes of which you see in contemporary movies like Arrival or Interstellar.

The movie stars a few heavy-hitters in Chinese cinema, including frequent martial arts hero Wu Jing, veteran performer Ng Man-tat, and viral comedy star Mike Sui (who plays a goofy Chinese-Australian comic relief), but let’s be honest here: the script and performances are about as hollow as you would expect from any given blockbuster. There’s some nice characterisation around the themes of family and global kinship, but you’re here for the spectacle of Jupiter literally sucking the Earth’s atmosphere out in a gigantic fountain and that is precisely what you get.

You’re not going to see something groundbreakingly original in The Wandering Earth, but it is a riotously fun hodgepodge of blockbuster action tropes punctuated by some genuinely cool special effects and imagery. We’re in a particularly interesting time for global cinema, and this movie feels like the beginning of a new wave of international blockbusters which go toe-to-toe with their Hollywood counterparts. On those grounds alone, it’s worth your time.

The Wandering Earth is playing in select cinemas Australia-wide.