It’s big, sprawling and formulaic. Scenes are filled with legions of extras and futuristic science fiction vistas — gigantic structures on Earth and in space, teeming masses rallying around the idea that working together we can ultimately save ourselves.
And as China’s biggest-ever homegrown sci-fi blockbuster, 2019’s “The Wandering Earth,” didn’t get serious about the actual business of “wandering,” of course there’s a sequel.
“The Wandering Earth II” is even bigger, more sprawling and more daffy in its Big Science. It’s got a few first act jokes before turning somber, dogged and yet never fatalistic. It’s also more cluttered and more pointed in its Chinese messaging. So naturally it’s almost an hour longer than the two hour original.
“Earth” owes a debt to decades of tense-and-tested humanity sci-fi films shot through with a kind of “We’ll get through this” optimism, films from “Deep Impact” to “2012” and “Armageddon,” all of them tracing their roots back to the 1950s and “When World’s Collide.”
Only now, the folks leading the way, setting the agenda, fighting off terrorist protests and keeping the world on task for the long haul as they play civilization’s “long game” — a 2500 year voyage to another star — are Chinese.
As that cultural patience is kind of a brand for China, taking the long view of history and its place within it, that’s not a hard sell built into this pricey piece of motion picture cheese.
In the not that distant future, scientists discover that the sun is burning out faster than expected, with that long-predicted expansion of the star in its death throes set to overwhelm the inner solar system.
A group of 33 of the most industrialized countries form an independent and somewhat more authoritarian body that supersedes the U.N., one that can take decisive action, spend insane amounts of capital and rally the planet — for decades — around the idea that our future is in space, just not this particular corner of it.
The Chinese push what comes to be called “The Wandering Earth” Project, covering the planet with 10,000 thruster engines of unknown power source which will push us out of orbit, and make the metaphor “Spaceship Earth” literal.
We follow a scientist (Andy Lau of “House of Flying Daggers”) Facetiming with his little girl, Yaya, who chatters and wants to know when he’s coming home.
A couple of pilots (Regina Wan and Jing Wu) court and flirt in that chaste Chinese film way as they prep for work in space, where a new space station serviced by space elevators is home to prep work and the moon colony is undergoing proof-of-concept testing about how these gigantic rocket motors will move a celestial body of great size without “tearing the Earth’s mantle to pieces.”
And a sage, Mao-suited scientific project leader (Li Xuejian) tries to keep China’s Finest and the world on task with speeches that date “the birth of humanity” to that 15,000 year old femur bone that paleontologists found and recognized as broken, but healed, meaning “someone took care” of the victim. Compassion for one’s fellow humans is thus the beginning of civilization.
But the world is politically riven by people who won’t let go of expensive plans that don’t involve moving the planet. They stage attacks designed to derail “Wandering Earth” before it ever launches.
Frant Gwo’s sequel is a series of brisk but repetitive “countdowns” to this act of terror, that lunar event or the ultimate solar tipping point. That spaces out the film’s big set pieces on the moon, on the space elevators, under the sea where internet server farms are cooled, and it reinforces the idea that this might be a story that is being told centuries or millennia in the future, as history.
The plot lurches from location to location, some more exciting than others but most of them promising a big set piece or a momentary attempt at personal pathos. A few work, a few more don’t.
“Wandering II” is a film of Chinese self-sacrifice and heroism, with Chinese cheer-leading and Russian fluffing and Western decadence (a leader gets bad news on the project in the toilet), timidity (an American astronaut whimpers with fear on a space elevator ride) and a subtext that suggests “democracy has failed,” something China was openly chest-thumping about before bungling the world into a pandemic that killed millions, battered the economy and humbled the Tiger of the East.
Chinese values of “order” are reinforced with sloganeering — “In times of crisis, duty above all. — as is cultural/racial cohesion — “Unity comes with a cost.”
Just a spoonful of propaganda makes the authoritarianism go down. And yes, the idea of a Chinese leader lecturing the world on “compassion” and “humanity” seems a little rich.
A major setting of “Wandering Earth II” is Gabon, which fits neatly into China’s Africa initiatives, the “New Silk Road” of highways and transportation belts they’re financing over much of the less developed world. And there’s even a “Made in China” gag here, for those who haven’t picked up on the jingoism.
All that messaging seems overt here, although others claim to have not noticed it in the first film (which has been on and off of Netflix).
The major global pushback depicted in the film is from “digital life” advocates, which seems like a way of giving up your corporeal body and becoming “data,” and like something that jibes with the Chinese government’s war on and through social media.
Movies of this “world ending” subgenre often have a scope that is both ambitious and simplistic, because the realities of such a calamity are that the world can’t agree on a damned thing and certainly not quickly. They’re also jingoistic, and as most have been from Hollywood, that’s made them “NASA will save us” enterprises.
So I won’t knock this film — made mainly for the Chinese domestic market — for its flag-waving and Russia-supporting and light America bashing.
But it’s a drag, a Long March of a disaster epic that isn’t too much of a good thing. It’s just too much.
“Wandering Earth” brought to mind yet another Hollywood globalist sci-fi epic, “Contact.” Some of the same story beats, character secrets and plot twists are common to “Wandering Earth,” and for that matter, “2012,” which you may remember has the Chinese building giant diesel-powered arks to survive a second Biblical flood and thus save a chunk of humanity to start over.
In “Contact,” the alien-designed transport device that fails is backed-up, and scientist Jodie Foster manages to meet our “visitors from another world” via a second transporter built by another super-rich, ascendent Asian economic power, pandered-to-by-Hollywood and widely seen as the nation/culture of the future, to be emulated and/or feared by a world that was now its oyster.
In that 1997 film, that role was played by Japan. As China ages and the population shrinks and struggles with its own suddenly less certain future and perhaps more Japanese future, agitprop like “The Wandering Earth” could be the new model for global sci-fi, which even if it isn’t Chinese perhaps pays fealty to the Chinese marketplace. Or it could come to be seen as a quaint reminder of a moment, and not of a permanent shift in the axis of the Earth, a “Rising Sun”(1993) peak before the fade, “long game” planning or or not.
But congratulations are still in order. You’ve produced a disaster blockbuster every bit as slick and empty as Hollywood or Bollywood.
Rating: unrated, PG sci-fi violence
Cast: Andy Lau, Jing Wu, Jinmai Zhao, Xuejian Li
Credits: Directed by Frant Gwo, scripted by Yang Zhixue, Gong Geer, Frant Gwo, Ruchang Ye. A Well Go USA release.
Running time: 2:53