This piece originally appeared as part of my weekly newsletter, The Full Lid . If you liked it, and want a weekly down of pop culture enthusiasm, occasional ketchup recipes and me enjoying things, then check out the archive and sign up here.
There’s a moment in The Wandering Earth where one character is using his back-mounted minigun to blast through layers of permafrost while the others are frantically trying to haul a fusion core up the elevator shaft of a frozen skyscraper so they can take it to one of the several thousand engines powering Earth through space and turn it back on. It comes after an earthquake which turns into a car chase which turns into a rescue mission and is, in any way you’d expect, third act action.
It arrives at the one hour mark.
Are you getting that I really liked this? Are you picking up what I’m putting down here? Because The Wandering Earth is really good.
Based on a Cixin Liu story, it’s the second highest grossing non-English movie of all time and was released onto Netflix this week the same way kids get their parents to drop them off at school. The basic idea is this: the Sun is going to turn into a red giant and destroy the Earth. A World Government is formed which evacuates the population to underground cities beneath world engines, vast propulsion systems which fire the Earth out of the Solar System, guided by a navigational space station. 17 years into the voyage, preparing for a gravitational slingshot around Jupiter, things begin to go extremely wrong…
The core of all this is Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao), the son of an astronaut aboard the station, his grandfather Han Zi’ang (Ng Man-tat) and his younger sister Han Duoduo (Zhao Jinmai). Liu is young, furious at his dad (For it turns out very good reasons) and desperate to get out of the city. He steals his grandfather’s transport pass, borrows a transport and takes his younger sister on a ‘field trip’ to see the surface. There, in among the vast mining operation keeping the engines running, the three of them get caught up in the imminent disaster.
In the hands of a lesser director this would be a schmaltzy or cologne soaked mess. Here it’s a surprisingly nuanced and completely no holds barred look at a planetary catastrophe. There’s no Colonel Military Industrial Complex arguing over whether they really ARE going to crash into Jupiter. There’s no false conflict. Instead, everyone is briefed, everyone knows what to do and the movie makes it clear that salvation here is made from a thousand tiny victories. One of the best recurrent images is of people descending en masse to help solve a problem and director Frant Gwo has never met a wide shot they didn’t like. Or couldn’t make look great. You’ve rarely seen space-age trucks get put through more punishment in more volume than you do here. Likewise a fantastically nasty zero-g chase across the space station as the crew try and solve the small problem of a murderous computer system.
it’s a C plot. Seriously. Murderous not-quite AI is the plot this cuts away to when nothing much else is happening. Which is rarely.
The movie does have problems. I mention Liu Qi in detail because he, and Han Zi’ang are the only characters we really get to know. They’re also the only two we need to get to know. Everyone else is either the sort of character these movies always feature or ciphers to keep the plot moving. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, and the form even kind of demands it, but the movie is always at its best when it isn’t leaning on them. Because it’s then that you get moments like the transports turning round in the endless night, the origin of Han Zi’ang and the final, astounding action sequence which features the first use of Chekov’s Bucky Ball I’ve ever seen.
The Wandering Earth is a fiercely entertaining, relentless spectacle that’s cleverer than you, or sometimes it, thinks. It’s on Netflix now and is a very good time.