© 2019, by M. Keith Booker
The Wandering Earth, adapted from a short novel of the same title by Chinese science fiction superstar Liu Cixin, grossed nearly $700 million in China alone, making it the most commercially successful science fiction film in Chinese history and the third highest-grossing film of any kind in Chinese history. The film experienced less success at the international box office, but it was quickly picked up by the Netflix streaming platform and thus made available to viewers all over the world in their own homes. The Wandering Earth is an ambitious effort, not only in terms of the magnitude of the stakes of its narrative but also in terms of the scale and quality of its special effects, which might not match those in the very best American science fiction films but which are definitely of high quality, more than adequate to support the film’s momentous narrative.
In a sense, The Wandering Earth is the ultimate apocalyptic disaster film. Set in the year 2061, it details a future world in which the aging sun is on the verge of expanding into a red giant, swallowing up the earth and destroying the solar system. In response, the world’s cultures have all decided to band together to form the United Earth Government (UEG), a single global government that spearheads efforts to galvanize all of the world’s resources to deal with the crisis. They have constructed a series of ten thousand fusion-driven engines that, after the earth’s rotation has been halted with a second series of “torque engines,” are used to propel the planet into space and away from the sun. The plan is to undertake a 2500-year journey to a neighboring star, placing the earth into orbit around a new sun. In the meantime, 10,000 underground cities are constructed in order to provide liveable environments for the 100 generations of humans who will travel on this journey. However, years after the mission has begun, the wandering earth has a near catastrophic encounter with the planet Jupiter that nearly derails the entire project, destroying the earth and everyone and everything on it.
Despite the disaster scenario, the basic premise of The Wandering Earth is a remarkably upbeat, utopian one. The film specifies that, in the face of the biggest of all threats, the people of the world are, in fact, able to overcome their differences and to work together to meet the threat, a motif that invites allegorical interpretations of various kinds, with the expanding sun standing in for catastrophes of various other (more likely) kinds. In particular, the narrative of The Wandering Earth suggests that the people of earth can, in fact, mobilize to meet the climate-change crisis, but only if they are finally able to acknowledge the seriousness of the crisis and to agree to work together to overcome it. In the film, the people of earth are able to think big and to imagine the most audacious project in human history, a project that the film suggests will ultimately be successful. The film itself, though, in order to focus on a compelling narrative, actually focuses on only one moment in this monumental 100-generation journey, the particular local crisis that occurs when the traveling earth passes by Jupiter, attempting to pick up speed by sling-shotting around the giant planet. Unfortunately, a “gravitational spike” from Jupiter catches the earth and stalls its propulsion and torque engines, threatening to pull our planet into the gas giant, destroying the wandering earth before it even gets out of our solar system.
The members of the film’s ensemble cast are all involved, in one way or another, with the attempt to deal with this crisis, once again demonstrating a utopian potential for humanity to come together and to overcome even the most severe of crises. There are, in fact, two parallel types of efforts involved in the film. On the one hand, a group of characters on earth’s now-frozen surface become involved in efforts to restart earth’s fusion engines; this part of the film belongs to the disaster film genre. On the other hand, other characters aboard the space station that is being used as a navigational center for the planetary trek struggle to contribute as well, carrying out efforts that remain firmly situated within the recognizable visual grammar of science fiction, including a liberal helping of convincing-looking high-tech outer-space hardware. As it turns out, the combined efforts of both groups are ultimately necessary in order to save the earth, which constitutes a crucial part of the film’s overall emphasis on collective effort, rather than individual heroism.
Both of these generic contexts are very familiar from Western film, from which the makers of The Wandering Earth seem to have learned a great deal. Indeed, director Gwo is known to have studied American science fiction films in preparing for this project (and to have been inspired by James Cameron’s Terminator 2 to become a filmmaker in the first place). Yet this film is also infused with a number of distinctively Chinese elements—the most obvious of which is the Chinese setting on earth and the prevalence of Chinese characters. In addition, the most crucial events of the film happen to take place on the date of the Chinese New Year (while the film itself was released in China on Chinese New Year’s Day in 2019). Americans, meanwhile, are notably absent from major roles in the film—the only major non-Chinese character is a Russian, though one character is half-Chinese and half-Australian.
As total disaster nears, an attempt to ignite Jupiter’s atmosphere from earth, thus propelling the smaller planet away, fails as a plasma beam projected toward Jupiter from earth fails to reach the energy level that is required for ignition of Jupiter’s atmosphere. But, just as defeat seems certain, Liu Peiqiang (played by Wu Jing, a huge star in China, mostly in martial arts films), a Chinese astronaut, manages to crash the station into the beam as it intersects Jupiter’s, providing the needed extra energy to ignite the hydrogen in Jupiter’s atmosphere and propelling the earth back out into space and onward toward its eventual destination. Back on earth, Liu Peiqiang’s father, Han Zi’ang (played by veteran Hong Kong actor Ng Man-tat), is killed amid the rescue efforts there, while Liu’s rebellious son Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao) becomes a hero back on earth for his efforts during the crisis. He will, in fact, ultimately become a key leader of the next generation. Importantly, though the focus is thus on a single family, the fates of these characters have an almost allegorical quality, suggesting the forward-looking orientation of the film, which emphasizes hope for a better future, regardless of how dismal things might look in the present. As Liu Peiqiang says at one point in the film in reference to the overall Wandering Earth project, “I thought home was behind us. Now I realize home lies up ahead.”
The Wandering Earth also shows a great deal of faith in the power of technology to help human beings achieve their goals. At the same time, the film strongly emphasizes that people are more important than machines and that a human touch is always needed in order to solve the most difficult problems. For example, in his attempt to save the earth by sacrificing the space station, Liu Peiqiang has to overcome the efforts of MOSS, the artificial intelligence that manages the space station, which has been programmed to preserve the station at all costs, including the sacrifice of the earth. After all, the station includes a stock of 300,000 frozen human embryos, DNA maps of all known plant and animal species on earth, and 100 million seeds that can be used to regenerate food crops from earth—not to mention digital libraries of all of the earth’s cultures. In short, it contains everything needed to ensure the perpetuation of the human species once it reaches a new planet suitable for habitation—and this perpetuation will include the preservation of human culture and much of the earth’s bio-system. What it won’t be able to save, of course, are the 3.5 billion humans currently living on earth—and the film very clearly conveys the notion that each of these human beings is valuable as an individual, more valuable, in fact, than any abstract notion of humanity.
On the other hand, MOSS—working somewhat in the tradition of the HAL 9000 artificial intelligence of 2001: A Space Odyssey—has been programmed to favor humanity in the abstract. It thus coldly calculates that the survival of the human race is more likely if it allows the earth to crash into Jupiter, proceeding on its own in the mission to find a new home where the frozen embryos can be thawed to regenerate humanity. Like HAL, then, MOSS is willing to kill individual humans in order to further its agenda. The artificial intelligence does, in fact, kill Makarov (Arkady Sharogradsky), a very human (and somewhat comical) Russian cosmonaut who is also aboard the space station (and who attempts to help Liu Peiqiang overcome MOSS). There is, in fact, a strong strain of humanism in The Wandering Earth, which suggests that, regardless of how advanced and even intelligent technology might become, it will never be able to substitute for the unique combination of intelligence, courage, and love for other humans that enables human heroes such as Liu Peiqiang to perform feats that no machine could. Indeed, he ultimately defeats MOSS by the very human expedient of blowing up the computer that houses it by dousing it with vodka smuggled onto the station by Makarov. Then, he is ultimately able to win the endorsement of the UEG to sacrifice the space station as they declare to “choose hope” rather than simply giving up in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
The Wandering Earth resembles American science fiction blockbusters in its heavy emphasis on effects-driven action sequences. And these sequences are quite competently executed, producing some scintillating individual moments that usefully punctuate the larger overall narrative. Indeed, while the actual science of the film is often a bit problematic, these action sequences help to produce a willing suspension of disbelief that allow viewers to become immersed in the film, rooting not only for the individual characters, but for humanity as a whole.
The Wandering Earth contains a number of familiar science fiction motifs, and a great deal of it will feel quite familiar to Western viewers, even if it might require a bit of reorientation to get used to a vision of earth’s future that is not centered on America. This film never implies that China has become the dominant force in its world government, but it does consistently focus on Chinese characters and on action taking place in China, so its perspective is very much a Chinese one. This reminder that the United States is not synonymous with earth—as one might gather from so many American science fiction films—is probably a healthy one. It is also refreshing to see a film that is willing to think big and to imagine the successful completion—thanks to a combination of high technology and human ingenuity and determination—astonishingly ambitious undertakings.
This success, meanwhile, is a crucial part of the one aspect of The Wandering Earth that sets it most strongly apart from most Western science fiction: its collective utopian spirit. There are many signs in our world that Chinese socialism has been diluted by the intrusions of global capitalism. There are many signs in The Wandering Earth, however, that we are watching a film produced in a society that still espouses a number of socialist values. For example, most of advanced technology shown in the film is everyday working machinery, such as heavy trucks, that maintains a sort of working-class quality despite its high level of technological sophistication. In addition, even though Liu Peiqiang heroically sacrifices himself to save the earth, he does so in a mode that is very different from the individualist heroism that tends to drive Western film in general. The emphasis here is not on the tragedy of Liu’s sacrifice but on the triumph of earth’s salvation. Indeed, a number of characters (including Liu Peiqiang’s own father) heroically sacrifice themselves in the course of the film, so that the mass of living humans can survive. The film as a whole, meanwhile, emphasizes collective action and the way in which teams of people working together can accomplish more than any individual heroes working separately. This sort of emphasis on teamwork can occasionally be found in Western science fiction film, of course, but never on the scale and with the consistency with which collective action dominates The Wandering Earth. Moreover, this emphasis on collective action involves large masses of ordinary individuals and thus occurs in virtually the opposite of the spirit that motivates superhero team films such as The Avengers, which emphasize the efforts of small groups of individuals so extraordinary that these tend to imply that ordinary individuals are pretty much helpless to determine their own destinies.
Perhaps the most powerful socialist motif in the film is its emphasis on the power of hope as the central driving force for its utopian vision. This emphasis is repeated at several points in the film, as various characters come face to face with overwhelming odds and decide nevertheless to continue to fight to succeed, rather than simply giving up. Even junior-high student Han Duoduo (Zhao Jinmai), the adopted sister, makes an important contribution to saving earth as she calls on other rescuers to join her group in attempting to activate the plasma beam they hope will ignite Jupiter’s atmosphere. “Yesterday, my teacher asked us: What is hope? In the past, I never believed in hope. But now I do. I believe that, in the times we live in now, hope is precious like a diamond. Hope. Hope is the only way to guide us home. Please come back and fight together with us. Ignite Jupiter! Save the earth!”
Indeed, the whole project of launching the earth itself into space is a remarkably bold one that is the film’s central testament to the power of hope, which is a crucial socialist idea. In his most important work—a magisterial three-volume effort collectively entitled The Principle of Hope—Bloch insists that true socialist utopian thinking involves, not a dedication to building an ideal socialist society, but instead a devotion to the notion that, no matter how bad things get, there is always hope that they will get better, potentially moving toward genuine social progress. In this view, the quest for utopia is itself a positive good; utopia resides not in an achieved perfect society but in a determined process of trying to imagine—and working toward—a better society. True utopia is never achieved in the present; it resides in the “not-yet” as a goal to work toward, driven by hope for a better world in the future.
Such differences between this film and the ideology that drives most American science fiction films might account for the widely varying responses to this film on the part of American critics. Simon Abrams, reviewing the film for the website RogertEbert.com, was enthusiastically positive about the film, declaring that “it cured my winter depression.” Noting that the film’s makers seem to have spiced up Liu Cixin’s original novel with elements derived from American disaster movies, he also suggests that “they synthesize them in a visually dynamic, emotionally engaging way that sets the project apart from its Western cousins, and marks it as a great and uniquely Chinese science fiction film.” In particular, Abrams was highly impressed by the film’s collective vision and refusal to focus on individualist heroes, its special effects and overall look, and ability to “breathe new life into hackneyed tropes.” Abrams then closes his review with a final ringing endorsement: “A week after seeing The Wandering Earth, I’m still marveling at how good it is. I can’t think of another recent computer-graphics-driven blockbuster that left me feeling this giddy because of its creators’ can-do spirit and consummate attention to detail. The future is here, and it is nerve-wracking, gorgeous, and Chinese.”
On the other hand, writing for IndieWire, David Ehrlich saw the film in virtually the opposite way. Declaring it “borderline unwatchable,” he suggested that it serves as a harbinger of a future in which “the spectacle required to sustain popular cinema becomes so large that the industry congeals into a worldwide monoculture and creates a vacuum of credible artistic and cultural expression powerful enough to suck an entire medium into a black hole of its own making.” He concludes, apparently striving desperately to be colorful in his attempt to denounce the film, that The Wandering Earth serves as a sign of a world in which “four-quadrant hits have been replaced by four-continent goliaths, and distinct national cinemas are subsumed into a one-size-fits-all swill of mega-nonsense. Hollywood might still be winning the race to the bottom, but you can’t blame the rest of the planet for trying to keep pace.”
For Abrams, in short, The Wandering Earth is excitingly fresh because it is so different from Western science fiction films—and he is willing to embrace this difference. For Ehrlich, the film is dismally disappointing because it is so similar to Western science fiction films. Personally, I agree with Abrams, whose point of view is very similar to my own. And I suspect that Ehrlich found the film similar to Western films simply because he read it so rigidly within the context of the Western standards to which he is accustomed that he was unable to appreciate just how different the film really is. But one could also see the contrast between the views of Abrams and Ehrlich as a mere matter of emphasis: Abrams was looking for aspects of the film that were different from Western science fiction film and so those were the ones he noticed most strongly; Ehrlich seemed to want the film to be uninteresting and unoriginal and so focused on aspects of the film that were not all that different from Western science fiction films. The fact is that the film does differ from Western films in a number of important ways, some of which I have indicated above. But it also resembles Western science fiction film in a number of ways—as is appropriate (and even inevitable) in today’s globalized world. In my view, in fact, the most remarkable achievement of The Wandering Earth is its ability to appeal to Western audiences while at the same time conveying a number of socialist positions that are so foreign to the Western mainstream that some Western viewers (such as Ehrlich) might not be able to grasp them at all. In any case, for me The Wandering Earth is an impressive effort that seems to bode well for the future of Chinese science fiction film—and, indeed, for science fiction film as a whole.
Abrams, Simon. “The Wandering Earth.” RogerEbert.com (February 15, 2019). https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-wandering-earth-2019. Accessed October 19, 2019.
Bloch, Ernst. The Principle of Hope. 3 vols. Trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995. (Original German version published in 1959.)
Ehrlich, David. “‘The Wandering Earth’ Review: The $700 Million Grossing Chinese Blockbuster Now on Netflix Is Unwatchable.” IndieWire (May 11, 2019). https://www.indiewire.com/2019/05/wandering-earth-review-netflix-1202132477/. Accessed October 19, 2019.