WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
I am interested in China. I am not so much interested in films. But I am very interested in existential risks and post-apocalyptic settings – especially underground ones. So I was naturally excited to see WANDERING EARTH.
Problem: It’s not being shown in Russia. So far as I know, it wasn’t released in Europe at all. It only saw a limited international release confined to the US and Australia, forcing everyone else to stream it on Netflix. I am not going to subscribe to Netflix because I am not enough of a cuck to pay some Yankee grifters to watch otherwise freely available content that isn’t even American, so Pirate Bay it is. Still, its lack of international presence was rather remarkable for a movie that grossed $700 million, China’s second highest of all time. Doesn’t say much for Chinese soft power.
It is the middle of the 21st century, and the Earth is in a bit of a pickle. The Sun has decided to go into red giant mode a few billion years ahead of schedule. After some out of the box thinking, the world’s governments decide to build 10,000 “Earth Engines” that are to fuse away the Earth’s crust to propel the Earth away from the Sun. These Earth Engines are massive structures, higher than Mount Everest, and they are tended to – and provide power for – underground communities of 350,000 people each. Moreover, there are 2,000 even bigger “Torque Engines” arrayed along the equator. These were constructed to change the rotational speed of the Earth, creating massive tsunamis that killed off two thirds of the world’s surplus population.
Leaving side for now the more implausible aspects, I immediately found it difficult to see why they’d go to the trouble of constructing those Torque Engines when they could winnow the population much cheaper through a bioengineered plague, or some other, less capital-intensive method. Surely for the cost of those 2,000 Torque Engines they could have constructed an additional several thousand Earth Engines, enabling them to save all the world’s people instead of just 3.5 billion?
Also, in my own racist, autistic line of thinking, wouldn’t tsunamis actually mostly wipe out the capable, high IQ people capable of manufacturing and maintaining those Earth Engines in the first place? Much of Africa is rather high in elevation, while South America is shielded by mountains and the dense Amazonian rainforest. Meanwhile, the great bulk of the Chinese population lives in the flat, eastern third of the country.
Anyhow, this convoluted planetary evacuation scheme actually works, and the Earth begins to fly away from the fiery Sun… into the frying pan that is Jupiter. For as they pass in front of it, the gas giant happens to emit a “gravitational spike”, pulling in our hapless Terra into its gravitational well even as the resultant earthquakes disable most of the Earth Engines that would have been needed to correct course.
On Earth, our plucky heroes – Liu Qi, his adopted sister Han Duoduo, and some other sidekicks – fail to repair the Earth Engines in time and all hope is seemingly lost. In what is perhaps the film’s most (unintentionally) slapstick scene, a distraught soldier fires off his minigun in rage at Jupiter.
But as they say, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. The Earth is accompanied by an orbiting space station which holds a few thousand taikonauts and millions of sperm, eggs, and data banks. So, your classical generation ship, give or take. The ship’s on-board AI system “MOSS” calculates that the Earth is doomed and begins to steer the spaceship away from the doomed planet. But the Chinese hero, Liu Peiqiang – father of Liu Qi – refuses to accept the dying of the light, rebels against Chinese Hal 9000, and manages to get the better of it thanks in part to a heroic sacrifice by his Russian cosmonaut friend. Once Liu Peiqiang has manual control, he convinces the World Government to allow him to attempt an unconventional solution. He launches the spaceship in a kamikaze strike onto Jupiter’s surface, igniting the gas giant’s hydrogen surface and producing a blast wave that knocks the Earth back into empty space.
This is not really hard sci-fi. On the Mohs Scale Of Science Fiction Hardness, it is surely closer to Solaris (the Hollywood adaptation) than to Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves. According to one hard science estimate, you’d need to mine 95% of the Earth’s mass to generate the energy needed to get it to its post-solar destination, Proxima Centauri. The Sun’s untimely demise, Jupiter’s “gravitational spike”, and Torque Engines generating enough instant acceleration to generate democidal tsunamis on the planetary tsunamis is all patently absurd. The plot resolution device, the idea of igniting Jupiter’s hydrogen atmosphere, is even more fantastical. It is struck by hundreds of meteorites every decade, none of which have “ignited” it thus, and any kinetic force capable of pushing away an Earth accelerating into Jupiter would also completely and utterly disintegrate it, let alone leave any survivors on the surface (as happened to our heroes in the film). Nonetheless, there is at least the appearance of attention to Newtonian mechanics, which not something one can say for most Hollywood sci-fi movies.
Also, credit where it’s due. The temperature calculations are remarkably accurate. They are around extreme Antarctica levels (about -90C), whereas Earth’s steady state temperature at Jupiter’s orbit will be around -150C (at least according to Universe Sandbox 2). However, considering that the Sun is expanding, and that Earth is flying away from it and is still warmer than it should be, this figure is perfectly plausible. The cargo transport vehicles are bulky and overgrown with all sorts of manual controls. While this might seem strange to us in the context of a hi-tech 21st century civilization capable of constructing thousands of megastructures, I would argue that this is actually fridge brilliance (if probably unintentional). Vehicles will need to be extremely rugged and have redundant controls in a harsh, rapidly cooling planet that is gradually heading out of the protective blanket of the heliosphere.
It is very funny to observe the national stereotypes on display. As mentioned above, WANDERING EARTH was made for a Chinese audience, so I assume they didn’t take care to pander to foreign sensibilities and sensitivies. Liu Peiqiang’s Russian sidekick on the space station, Makarov, is a good-natured semi-alcoholic who considers his Chinese counterpart to be his brother, and the warm feelings are mutual. Although he died for the sake of their mission, it is Makarov’s secret vodka caches that allows Liu Peiqiang to defeat MOSS by converting one bottle into a Molotov cocktail and throwing it at the mainframe (after unsuccessfully trying to hack the mainframe).
Meanwhile, the foreign sidekick of the surface protagonists is a blonde Australian sexpat called Tim who insists that “she consented” when we first meet him in a jail cell. Though he is the stand-in for the English language teacher laowai archetype, he is not portrayed with any particular malice. China is not yet in the #MeToo era, and presumably, female claims about inappropriate sexual conduct are still taken with a pinch of salt. The Australian comes off as goofy layabout, not a rapist creep, and the entire thing is laughed off in a manner that I doubt will pass muster with Western SJWs in the Current Year.
There are no Africans or other non-Asian POCs. Thr unspoken implication is that Whites and East Asians were the only two races capable of constructing the Earth Engines and the elaborate underground bunkers that would shelter humanity in its 2,500 year voyage to Proximate Centauri. That was a breath of fresh year after years of Hollywood regaling us with fables about NASA’s Black geniuses.
That said, I am disappointed to report that Hollywood has nothing to worry about. Fundamentally, this film is a reminder that characters matter. The world of WANDERING EARTH is more compelling than most. The plot might be largely nonsensical and ad hoc, but that’s par for the course. The CGI is astounding, featuring long, spectacular space scenes, and serene views of the ruined and frozen surface. What is even more remarkable is that its budget was a mere $50 million. Hollywood would have needed at least $250 million for comparable visual effects. But what distinguishes this from most Hollywood movies is that there are no memorable personalities, no character arcs, no cause for emotional investment into the fate of any of its protagonists. For all its other problems, this is something that Hollywood generally gets right. That is important, because so far as the creative arts are concerned, characterization comes before plot, while plot supersedes world-building. WANDERING EARTH gets it the other way round.
Liu Qi is the whiny, ungrateful son who endlessly castigates his father for “abandoning” him to serve humanity’s interests on the spaceship. His sister-in-law Han Duoduo is a bimbo who alternates between sleeping and hysterics, such as when she berates a surface worker crew for failing to save her grandfather-in-law from freezing to death (despite them having lost one of their own members in the attempt). As he dies, the old man thinks of how he saved Han Duoduo during the flooding from one of the tsunamis generated by the Torque Engines. This is a typical approach. Character deaths are accompanied by saccharine “reminiscence” scenes from their former lives, as if the directors were trying to add emotional poignancy to their demise. It doesn’t work because they don’t give sufficient cause to care about any of these people in the first place, so it just comes off as a cheap gimmick. In the end, Duoduo’s main purpose is to make an “inspirational” radio appeal to rally the rest of the surface repair crews to come fix the Earth Engine in Indonesia so that it could beam its energy ray up at Jupiter to ignite its atmosphere. Incidentally, this turns out to be pointless, as the resultant beam doesn’t travel far enough anyway and basically annuls the meaning of all the previous hour of desperate struggles and sacrifices to restart the engines. Not when all it took was to kamikaze a spacecraft into Jupiter to correct Earth’s course.
For an example of a Western film that got this right, you can take a look at The Day After Tomorrow (2004). This also featured a niveous apocalypse and a harrowing quest for survival across frozen wastelands. While it was also an ultimately mediocre film, there was real drama and tragedy when members of the crew died. If WANDERING EARTH is at all representative of Chinese sci-fi films, they are going to have to step up their game before they will be able to compete with Hollywood in the West.