'The Wandering Earth' Review: China's First Sci-Fi Blockbuster Is A Spirited But Overlong Spectacle

The Wandering Earth plays like a sci-fi movie made by an algorithm. You've got your doomsday premise, your seedy post-apocalyptic world, your scrappy teen leads, your ambitious space mission to save the Earth from certain destruction. Throw in the operatic bombast of Chinese blockbusters, and you've got yourself a hit.

Based off the novella of the same name by Liu Cixin (whose Hugo Award-winning novel The Three-Body Problem is about to receive its own big-budget adaptation from Amazon), The Wandering Earth is being billed as China's first proper sci-fi blockbuster. And it carries that burden with glorious purpose. The Wandering Earth blends throwback elements that harken to '90s Hollywood disaster flicks with the sumptuous excess of the Chinese historical epics. It's a film designed to be a crossover hit — the potential of which has already been spotted by Netflix, which recently picked up the film for streaming. But as manufactured as the film is, The Wandering Earth is so ambitiously action-packed and visually stunning that it's difficult not to be taken along for the ride.

Directed by Frant GwoThe Wandering Earth sees the Earth facing an unprecedented environmental crisis. The sun has become so unstable that within 100 years, it will expand and consume the Earth, and within 300, the entire solar system. Faced with the impending doom of humanity, Earth's governments rally together to come up with a solution as outsized as their problem: they will build 10,000 huge jets throughout one side of the planet and fly to a new solar system 4.2 light-years away. As a result of their cosmic destination, the Earth's surface freezes and most of humanity is shuffled off into thousands of underground cities. Called The Wandering Earth project, the plan was to use Jupiter's gravitational pull to slingshot them toward their destination, but a malfunction in the Earth Engine system leaves the planet caught in Jupiter's gravitational field and once again facing destruction. The crisis kicks off two separate threads of action: on Earth's frozen surface, a small group of workers must scramble to fix the engines, while the astronauts in the international space station leading the journey discover a secret plot against humanity.

American audiences may be familiar with the array of characters populating both storylines. The group of workers — and the two rebellious teens who get caught up in the crisis — are straight out of disaster thrillers like Armageddon or The Core: gritty archetypes who get a few cool lines of dialogues or an impressive action sequence before dying one by one. Our main teen characters, self-proclaimed genius Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao) and his adopted younger sister Han Duoduo (Zhao Jinmai) aren't much more fleshed out, but as the characters with the most backstory, they engender the greatest amount of sympathy. The duo accidentally get roped into rescue efforts after they run away from home in an effort to see the surface. While Han is just eager to see the surface after living her entire life underground, Liu Qi's rebellion comes from a deeper place of anger, rooted in his grudge against his astronaut father Liu Peiqiang (Chinese blockbuster star Wu Jing, in a remarkably subdued departure from his martial arts roles), who he feels abandoned him 17 years ago when he left to work in the newly-built international space as one of Earth's guides and pathfinders.

Meanwhile on the space station, Liu Peiqiang is counting down the days until he completes his 17-year tour and returns to his family on Earth. That is thrown for a loop when the crisis hits and the station's artificial intelligence, MOSS, puts the entire station's personnel in hibernation to save energy. But as the repair effort plays out on Earth, Liu Peiqiang realizes that something sinister is afoot and he and a Russian cosmonaut set out to thwart MOSS's plans.

There is an inordinate amount of exposition needed to set up what are honestly very simplistic storylines. But it adds to the whole grandiose experience that Gwo is crafting, which is most apparent in the awe-inspiring visuals. Gwo achieves an austere beauty with his use of visual effects — creating a picture of the swirling cosmos and Jupiter's cold, kaleidoscopic colors that is almost painterly. The images of the Earth moving through space with its tiny jets leaving trails of blue wisps behind it would be ridiculous in another director's hands, but is simply striking here. It's clear that Gwo is giddy to paint on a vast canvas the likes of which Chinese movies have never seen before — the epic scale and the sumptuous views of space are absolutely breathtaking.

The Wandering Earth often tips into issues of style over substance, but despite the formulaic nature of its story beats, characters, and cheesy sentimentality, there's an endearing goofiness to the film. Viral video star Mike Sui plays the impish biracial Chinese-Australian Tim, who often acts as the comic relief — sometime to grating effect. And there's an almost dry humor in Liu Peiqiang's interactions with MOSS, whose passive-aggressive announcements become exceedingly ridiculous.

And of course, there's the film's focus on Chinese nationalistic values that are so often espoused in the country's biggest blockbusters. Liu's story in particular puts the focus on collectivism and the need for international cooperation — echoes of which can be see in Xi Jinping's vision for space exploration. But The Wandering Earth manages to avoid being outright agitprop, despite a few laughably on-the-nose elements like its setting on Chinese New Year and Liu Peiqiang's friendship with the Russian astronaut. But despite some of its more nationalistic tendencies, The Wandering Earth is inarguably a wholly entertaining interstellar spectacle. If this is just the start of the sci-fi genre for the Chinese movie industry, then we can set sky-high expectations for the future.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10