2 out of 5
Directed by: Frant Gwo
The Wandering Earth is, as of 2020 and according to wiki, China’s third highest grossing film of all time. Not that box office earnings in any way equate to movie quality, but at the very least, when something earns buku dollars, I logically have to give it the benefit of the doubt in having tapped in to something that seems to appeal to movie goers. That could be a timely something, but regardless: there’s a reason it makes money.
I didn’t like The Wandering Earth very much, but that ranking encourages me to assess that part of what I didn’t like may just be elements of a different culture’s style of film. I’m making a huge assumption here, but having recently seen another well-earning Chinese movie – Animal World – I noticed some similarities between the two, and at least one of those traits is / was something that irked me. Firstly, there’s the use of CGI: American movies, and especially our blockbusters, love their CGI, but in world-destroying popcorn movies a la Wandering Earth, it’s often employed with a lot of glory shotting slo mo and for mass spectacle. In WE (and Animal World), though, there’s not the same focus on “realism” and reveling in the moment; it’s more about rocketing the viewer into a complete fantasy, and reality be damned. The camera swirls around, unhinged, and there’s no real attempt at photo realism. I don’t really mind this, but it’s a different approach, and in a movie like WE that lightly traffics in science, it can be a weird blend. Secondly, there’s the non-stop pacing, and lack of transitions. English speaking flicks have often taught me to expect a “breather” shot – even if it’s just a quick cut – that transitions us from point A to point B: a shot of someone getting in a car, or crossing a room. Wandering Earth doesn’t bother with that. As part of sticking with a general sort of always-moving mentality, pauses like this are completely absent, which can leave an unprepared viewer, used to the same film beats as m’self, swimming in the experience, set adrift without a reliable sense of scene flow on which to latch. I do mind this, but that’s one of the things I’m going to give the flick a pass on, which sort of goes hand-in-hand with its, as mentioned, breathless pacing – which is also rather exhausting for a two hour film.
With those exceptions acknowledged, there are still some pretty large problems I can’t excuse, which made the flick incredibly un-immersive for me, and often something of a grind to get through.
Before I touch on that, though: The Wandering Earth concerns a future when the sun is going to explode, and so the world unites for a long, multi-generational plan which has large rockets constructed all over the globe in order to catapult the planet out of the solar system, and in search of a new one. The resultant destruction to the globe further requires relocation of the remaining population (a certain percentage offed by the process – something that seems befitting of an entire movie itself but is zoomed past here) to underground cities created solely for this purpose, while in space, another long term mission is planned aboard a space station which will assist with the Earth’s guidance. We pick up the story at a point where there’s now a generation of teens – including leads Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao) and Han Duoduo (Zhao Jinmai) who’ve lived with very little knowledge of the surface. Their father, Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing) – now aboard the space station – has left his kids under the care of his grandfather, and is preparing to return home; Liu’s memory of their parting is bitter, and he’s spending the same time rebelling, stealing a tank like machine to go joyriding across the wint’ry planet’s surface. When a ‘gravity spike’ from the now nearby Jupiter sends our wandering planet on a collision course towards it, an emergency plan is put in to action: reignite several rockets that have gone dormant. Liu Peigiang’s space station is put into hibernation, his return halted; Liu Qi and Duoduo, through movie machinations, get wrapped up in to what turns out to be humanity’s true last hope to assist a government-tasked crew to power up a key rocket.
Movies like this take a long time to explain, but it can boil down to: the Earth’s gonna explode, And Your Our Last Hope!
And, y’know, though most of that narrative above is delivered within the first few minutes of the flick, I generally enjoyed the concept of the movie, as well as the escalations and solves that are built in along the way. It all happens with that same breakneck speeds that can be jarring, but again, accepted as part of the experience, it works, and there’s a certain charm to the hugeass ideas it leaps through with half a line of dialogue. The cast also is very solid, especially Chuxiao and Jing, with Jinmai bringing a good amount of expressiveness to a thankless role that diminishes her part to ‘the whiny girl with the emotions.’
However, spiraling all around this were two massive constructural problems with the flick itself: another consequence of the pacing and plotting complexity that I can’t quite reconcile is how quickly characters are brought in and then disposed with. There’s a lot of background population fodder in the movie – crushed / destroyed by apocalyptic events – which already feels weirdly apart from the movie itself, but then there’s the crew to which Qi and Duoduo are joined, and it’s a small handful of characters who, at one point, are given nicknames as if they’re jokes but have had no on-screen precedent to make those jokes funny. These characters also die off, but those moments are played for dramatics, and I couldn’t even understand what their role was intended to be. I guess this guy’s a scientist? I guess this guy’s a weapon expert? The movie is lacking in the smallest of cues (visual or dialogue) to indicate who the hell these people are, and why they’re relevant for their few minutes of screentime. Similarly, director Frant Gwo tosses this stew of people into many, many moments of CGI-swimming action – last minute escapes aplenty – without any sense of grounding the viewer. The camera zooms out to capture the big picture without placing our characters within the scene, leaving our eyes nowhere to focus. Narrow misses and valiant, heroic efforts are missed and have zero impact because they’re rendered bland by this lack of visual communication; even when we’re not zipping around these gigantic calamities, and instead focused on more practical action scenes with semi-closeups of humans, the editing is a mess, cutting back and forth in a way that never makes it clear as to who’s where and with whom. The large team is often separated, but the way it’s cut together never makes that actually apparent; they might all be in the same room, or they might all be on different corners of the globe, who knows? Combine this with the fast pace of the movie, and it means that the majority of the time, I found myself fully disconnected from onscreen events.
Blockbuster movies don’t have to be “good” so long as they’re distracting. A whole bunch of people seemed to be successfully distracted by The Wandering Earth, and to an extent, I can understand why. But some required pieces of filmmaking – namely making the characters matter, even at a surface level, and showing an ability to at least trick me into thinking you’re telling a visual story competently – rather wholly prevented me from distraction, and instead had me checking my watch through most of the flick.