Billed as China’s first true sci-fi blockbuster, Frant Gwo’s ridiculously profitable (and borderline unwatchable) “The Wandering Earth” tells the story of a cursed future in which the sun has become unstable, and humanity’s only hope for survival are the 10,000 jet engines strong enough to dislodge our planet from its orbit and launch us toward a solar system that’s 4.2 light-years away.
Currently the second-highest grossing movie in Chinese box office history, and now dumped on Netflix without fanfare, Gwo’s film also tells the story of another cursed future — one that presents a more clear and present danger — 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.
Studios rely on international audiences to survive, particularly the all-important Chinese market. It can be done with grace, but the shameless pandering shoehorned into the likes of “Skyscraper” and “Iron Man 3” is never a good look. Nor do domestic blockbusters like “Aquaman” and “Alita: Battle Angel” benefit when they’re built with a global audience in mind — an audience with a greater appetite for mythic storytelling, rapid-fire melodrama, and enough CG eye candy to bore cavities straight into your sockets.
That said, China devoured Hollywood nonsense like “Warcraft” and “Transformers: Age of Extinction” — and now, “The Wandering Earth” suggests it has amassed enough firepower to flip that dynamic and see if their multiplex offerings might interest American viewers whose lust for spectacle isn’t satisfied by the Avengers. This curiously apolitical sci-fi extravaganza combines the garish plastic delirium of the “Monster Hunt” franchise with the men-on-a-mission bombast of “Armageddon;” it’s as unrelenting as “Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back,” and as bone dumb as “Geostorm” or “The Core.” Maybe even dumber (at one point, a character fires a machine gun at the surface of Jupiter while screaming, “Screw you, Jupiter!”). The actors and setting don’t try to disguise its country of origin, but the film’s kumbaya attitude and tired archetypes will be warmly familiar to anyone raised on the Hollywood blockbusters of the mid-’90s. Gwo worships at the temple of James Cameron, and it shows.
Based on a short story by Liu Cixin, “The Wandering Earth” begins with a metric of voiceover world-building — the kind that’s becoming de rigueur at a time when “original” sci-fi movies need to compete with franchise installments that blow into theaters with 22-film headwinds. The year is whatever, and the sun is misbehaving. Confronted by an extinction-level event, humanity has collectively formed the United Earth Government, which has proposed a bold solution: Instead of trying to relocate people off-world, why don’t we move the entire planet by using a whole bunch of rockets (aka “Earth Engines”) to blast out of orbit and ride Jupiter’s gravitational pull towards Alpha Centauri? Cool plan, but it comes at a cost: Earth’s journey away from the sun will deep-freeze the planet’s surface, and only half the population can survive in the underground cities the UEG built beneath each Earth Engine.
That takes us about halfway through the prologue. Up next is the emotional backstory. Meet Liu Peiqiang (“Wolf Warrior 2” star Wu Jing), a Matthew McConaughey-like astronaut who’s summoned to the international space station for a decades-long mission designing Earth’s new trajectory. When Liu Peiqiang goes to space, his son is just a boy; when “The Wandering Earth” picks up 17 years later, Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao) is a bitter and rebellious young man who lives deep beneath Beijing with his grandfather (Ng Man-tat) and adopted sister, Han Doudou (Zhao Jinmai).
The first act is by far the strongest, unfolding at an intelligible pace that allows viewers to familiarize themselves with the film’s post-apocalyptic version of our planet. Subterranean Beijing is a vivid and exciting underground space, with artful dashes of digital imagery complicating a practical bunker that feels as lived-in as any fantasy world this side of “The Fifth Element” (hat tip to “Mortal Engines” for also getting this right, and in much the same way). Han Doudou is never afforded much of a personality or a reason to exist — not beyond the purposes of a cheaply sentimental flashback in the middle of the second act — but at least she’s introduced by a fun classroom scene that hints at what high school life is like several thousand meters below the ground.
It happens to be Chinese New Year, which falls on the same day that Liu Peiqiang is scheduled to return to Earth, and so Liu Qi steals his sister and some knockoff thermal suits and makes an illegal break to the surface in order to welcome his dad… or something. It isn’t really clear if Liu Qi is sentimental, or bitter, or rebellious, or just doing what the screenplay demands of him in any given scene (if Netflix is going to port over some of the international market’s biggest movies, it wouldn’t be the worst idea for it to invest in a decent localization team). Regardless, their frantic escape makes for a great setpiece, complete with a gun that traps people in giant bubbles, and a window into how a black market would function that close to the Earth’s core.
And then our blank heroes get topside, steal an “Aliens”-inspired future truck (the steering wheel is a sphere!), and everything goes insane. Earth’s journey takes it a little too close to Jupiter, which causes some apocalyptic gravitational havoc. Solar flares. Earthquakes. That interplanetary kiss from the prologue of “Melancholia.” It’s chaos. Naturally, Han Doudou and Liu Qi are requisitioned into an elite force of engineers tasked with going somewhere and fixing something while Liu Peiqiang repetitively grapples with a sinister A.I. called MOSS aboard his satellite.
It’s almost impressive how Gwo manages to rip off “Gravity,” “Sunshine,” and “2001,” all at the same time. His secret: Blending those inspirations together with such frantic cuts that he completely loses sight of why those movies were worth stealing from in the first place.
To this point, “The Wandering Earth” is good-looking movie. The colors are as hyper-saturated in the tradition of mainland Chinese epics, the special effects are used sparingly, and the production design is clever in every department. That all changes when the action starts, and Gwo’s blockbuster melts into a maximalist orgy of basic-cable special effects. Almost none of the ensuing chaos is rooted in any kind of reality and “The Wandering Earth” starts to feel like one of those films that was made in a big gray room; it’s like “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” without the kitsch to keep it together. Falling ice shelves, careening satellites, and endless amounts of cosmic debris all stretch Gwo’s vision far beyond his budget, and it doesn’t take long for this numbing adventure to seem as though it’s clocking Earth’s 2,500-year journey to Alpha Centauri in real time.
Perhaps no other movie has better illustrated the golden rule of CGI: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Necessity is the root of invention, and the ability to make anything can seriously impinge on the ability to make anything well. It’s amazing how fast “let’s chase the characters with an interstellar snowstorm” becomes “let’s have this interstellar snowstorm chase those characters.” How fast “We can make it look like Jupiter is narrowly passing by Earth’s orbit!” becomes “someone should probably fire at the face of the planet with a machine gun.”
There are no clear character arcs, no moments of human drama, no reason to resist how physically exhausting this is to watch. In a story that’s at its best in the rare moments when it hones in on the specificity of its characters — viral video star Mike Sui plays the only memorable supporting part, a biracial jokester named Tim — it’s no surprise that the most asinine things about “The Wandering Earth” require no translation.
This is ostensibly a story about the universal ties that hold us together, which makes it a perfect vehicle for the most American of China’s highest-grossing movies to wrangle a global audience. But while there should be something nice about someone else making the kind of mega-budget escapism that used to be our bread and butter, the experience of watching Gwo’s interminable epic is so tiresome that you can’t help but despair for what it entails. It comes to Netflix as a dark harbinger 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.
“The Wandering Earth” is now streaming on Netflix.