My fellow fanatics, I miss the old days of pulpy science-fiction movies. Sure, the recent trend of superhero movies have lead the kind of experiences my inner child never even dreamed of, and action movies have been batting a thousand the past couple of years, but sci-fi feels underserved. Most of the decent stuff like The Expanse or Altered Carbon moving to television streaming services while big sci-fi movies basically dried up, the last one I can even think of fondly being 10 Cloverfield Lane. But then I discovered something on Netflix that answered my prayers and it came from an unlikely place: the big-budget Chinese blockbuster The Wandering Earth. An absolutely audacious sci-fi disaster movie fueled cheesy melodrama and sincere declarations of cooperation and sacrifice in the face of adversity to a degree that makes Independence Day seem quaint.
The set-up is in the not too distant future, scientists discover that the sun is about to expand and take most of the known solar system with it. So the governments of Earth come up with a plan so ridiculous it just might work. Build giant jet engines out of all of Earth’s available resources, place all of them at strategic locations on one half of the entire planet, and then propel the planet out of our solar system to find a new system with a more stable sun; complete with underground cities for the populace and a massive space station to scout ahead and handle any unforseen circumstances that pop up during the journey.
In other words this is a big budget, highly meticulous planet-sized version of that one Patrick meme from Spongebob Squarepants. And that’s just the set-up.
The actual plot kicks off a few decades later. The Earth is about to use the gravity of Jupiter in order to slingshot itself completely out of the solar system when problems arise. Several of the Earth’s core engines begin to fail, and a crack team of engineers need to navigate the frozen over hellscape of the surface to get new ignition cores installed. But there’s also a ticking clock since without the engines fully firing, Earth is slowly getting pulled into Jupiter’s atmosphere where it will crash, dooming humanity to extinction. There’s also a sidestory going on the space station where one of the lead supervisors is butting heads with the AI operating the station on how to save Earth from this predicament, or even if it can be saved at all.
And boy does this movie look great. In addition to the whole thing being shot well with superb artistic and technical skill, the visual effects are quite impressive. Nothing on par with a high-budget Warner Bros. or Disney production, but with Alibaba footing the bill it still manages to pop.
It’s also very refreshing to see how globally minded The Wandering Earth is from a distinctly Chinese lens. There are plenty of other characters from other nations who show up in the movie, the foreign languages (aside from the obvious) I could suss out included Russian, French, and Spanish, and there are multiple on-the-nose sequences where the power of teamwork saves the day. But at the same time, one of those sequences hinges on rallying people together around the start of Chinese New Year, complete with a speech appealing to patriotic pride and resilience.
And notably, the movie also has some distinctly cultural preferences for sappy family melodrama, which kind of made me roll my eyes. Three members of the repair team are made up of a grandfather, his grandson, and adopted granddaughter, all working out various levels of emotional baggage while braving danger in their thermally reinforced spacesuits, and the supervisor on the station happens to the estranged father, and you can bet your bottom dollar there will be a lot of emotional yelling over comms and sad melancholic flashback sequences to tug at your heartstrings. There are memorable support characters as well such as a nervous scientist with motion sickness and a put-upon comic relief “Chinese Australian” man who gets some of the best spontaneous English lines in the whole movie, but the family kerfuffle left me uninterested.
If any of this sounds even remotely interesting or silly to you, I do highly recommend you give The Wandering Earth a watch. It’s on Netflix and easily worth your time if you miss big scale disaster movies or even ridiculous high-concept sci-fi movies – and you’re willing to put up with subtitles.