If you keep up with science fiction cinema, you might have heard about Chinese blockbuster The Wandering Earth, which Netflix quietly slipped into its library a few weeks ago. Based on a story by the decorated author of The Three-Body Problem, Liu Cixin, the film hit it big with global audiences to become one of the top 20 highest-grossing sci-fi films to date. But even if the title isn’t familiar, you’ll probably feel like you’ve seen the movie before. (General plot points discussed below, but nothing that will surprise a connoisseur of B-grade Netflix sci-fi disaster shows.)
Every smash sci-fi film needs a suitably apocalyptic premise, and The Wandering Earth is no exception. Solar activity threatens to destroy Earth, so a global governmental body decides to maneuver the entire planet to a new orbit. To accomplish this feat, thousands of “engine” towers are built across the world, their combined force propelling Earth deeper into the solar system (hence the title).
The movie opens on the eve of this epic pilgrimage with a stock parental departure a la Titan A.E. (Does anyone else remember that one? Fourteen-year-old JK fancied animated Matt Damon, and thirty-something JK still jams to the soundtrack on her running playlist. No? Guess I’m just extra-nerdy.) Astronaut Liu Peiqiang, bound for a space station mission that will help Earth navigate out of the Solar system, promises his young son Liu Qi that he will return.
As Earth moves away from the sun, the surface transforms into a wintery wasteland–think Snowpiercer without the train. The remaining few billion humans retreat to underground cities, where Liu Qi grows into the sort of savvy punk teenager who’s clearly destined to rescue an embattled dystopia. When Jupiter’s gravitational pull causes earthquakes that damage numerous engines, he ends up on a mission to restore power before the larger planet engulfs Earth into its great red spot.
Here’s my suspension of disbelief snapped, as the characters drive on frozen seas from China to Indonesia—a journey of more than 3,500 kilometers—in a matter of hours. Already weakened, my seriousness about the movie took a fatal blow when the quest to ignite a single essential engine reminded me irresistibly of the Futurama episode in which Bender and his robot kin must “vent” their gaseous exhaust to push Earth away from the sun:
Meanwhile, in space, Peiquiang and his Russian cosmonaut sidekick reenact sequences from Gravity and try to outsmart a cousin of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The two storylines eventually collide in an effusion of heroics, special effects, and international cooperation. A dash of Armageddon tops off the action, bringing the story to a predictable close. Like a modular CubeSat, The Wandering Earth strings together familiar sequences from other genre flicks into an ambitious construction, but it never reached orbit for this viewer.
It wasn’t the heavily derivative nature: science fiction is a game of tropes, and even the most common ones can be enjoyable when smartly employed. I could even forgive the believability flaws, endemic to most big-budget sci-fi movies. No, what left The Wandering Earth flat for me was the lack of character development. Stock archetypes–the angry kid with daddy issues, the noble but conflicted absentee parent, the goofy comic relief–never evolved beyond their basic blueprints. Various supporters engaged along the way are barely named, much less given a motive or background. It seems that both Eastern and Western audiences consider elaborate visual effects essential, but a strong plot and characters are optional. Perhaps that, rather than the world-saving antics, is the movie’s true message of international unity.