Chinese science-fiction cinema has a long history of unsure beginnings, failures, so-bad-it’s-good movies, exploitation flicks, as well as sporadic, intimist successes. Chinese-speaking sci-fi films exist since 1959, but The Wandering Earth marks the start of a new era for the industry. The film can be seen as the unquestionable arrival of China on the global map of science-fiction cinema. Regardless of its artistic achievements, it will henceforth be impossible to speak of worldwide audiovisual sci-fi without mentioning the People’s Republic of China. In addition, adapting a short story from Liu Cixin, the most internationally-renowned Chinese author (who also wrote the Three-Body Problem trilogy) is no small feat. Many questions stem from the concept of Chinese science-fiction, and The Wandering Earth takes intriguing first steps on a road that will no doubt be full of surprises.

The Wandering Earth takes place in the future, when the sun is about to die. To avoid extinction, humanity builds gigantic Earth engines in order to stop the planet’s rotation, and propel it through space, towards the nearest solar system. It’s a high concept straight from the most insane golden age sci-fi stories that Hugo Gernsback would have published without hesitation (unlike the Three-Body Problem trilogy, which is more hard SF). With this short story, Liu Cixin aimed at exploring the civilizational, emotional, political and societal effects of such an epic journey on mankind. The story stretches several decades, following one central character from his first years to his death.

The film, on the other hand, focuses the action on a very small part of the short story, which is the potentially cataclysmic collision course of Earth towards Jupiter. Losing the episodic structure, the script must make up for a generational study with blockbusting adventures, veering closer to the disaster movie on several occasions. Multiple supporting/main characters have also been added to cater to a wider audience – the old man played by a famous actor, the young, insufferable Australian-Chinese man, the heroic taikonaut portrayed by megastar Wu Jing –, all of which barely existed in Liu’s text, if at all.

In the original story, the protagonist was a witness to every single event in his life, which he had zero influence over. In the film, he becomes, unsurprisingly, a proactive hero who manages to save humanity with the help of his family and friends. This is important because that is where ideological approaches start to diverge. If Liu’s text was a perfect example of Chinese sci-fi – that is, soft sci-fi that’s more interested in social and metaphysical developments, and which showcases strong anti-individualistic aspects (in that only the nameless, faceless mass can change the course of history) – then its cinematic adaptation is an over-the-top melodramatic spectacle with some science-fictional ingredients thrown in, and most importantly a powerful sense of individualistic success.

This is not to say that The Wandering Earth is a bad film. But it belongs to an entirely different type of cultural production. The reasons behind such massive changes remain obscure. The global market doesn’t really seem to matter that much to the producers, at least not financially since the movie set new, dizzying records on the Chinese market alone. The few screenings that took place in Western countries didn’t actually have any sort of significant impact on box office numbers. Nevertheless, by framing his story in a universal dramatic structure, director Frant Gwo undoubtedly makes his film more easily accessible to international audiences. In 2011, Gwo directed the cyber-thriller Lee’s Adventure (starring Jaycee Chan, Jackie’s son), which was narratively and technically good enough to show the promise of more ambitious projects. And here we are a few years later, with The Wandering Earth, an irrefutably gorgeous-looking space film. Through its sets, costumes (courtesy of Weta), highly detailed futuristic vehicles, and world-class CGI, the film creates a sense of wonder that had never been attained by Chinese sci-fi before. Shots of space, and notably of the two planets coming closer to one another, explicitly work as a challenge to Hollywood visual effects.

Cinematically speaking, the movie’s weakest link lies with its script, which is perfunctory at best and avoids exploring the most disturbing questions that come with the pitch, in favour of repetitive CGI-laden sequences. As is often the case with Chinese films, we are treated to a sometimes-exaggerated melodrama, even though the climax manages to create some degree of genuine emotion. Which is, again, nothing like the short story, that denied the reader any kind of emotional involvement, going as far as to explain that the Earth’s exodus had annihilated any and all notion of love. Some have compared the film to Michael Bay’s Armageddon for its implausibility, its functional characters, and its impressive disaster scenes. And yet, its very production context makes The Wandering Earth infinitely more interesting. If the basic structure is indeed similar, it is because Chinese movies have historically leaned on American success formulas to propel their own ideas towards new horizons.

In 1959, the comedy Riots in Outer Space introduced sci-fi in Chinese-speaking cinema. It has taken the industry sixty years to truly take off and dive into a genre that has always been tricky to adapt to Chinese culture. Up to this point, the cultural idiosyncrasies of Chinese science-fiction were often part and parcel of the best works in the genre (Flash Future Kung Fu, The Avenging Fist, 2046, Virtual Recall, and so on), in which technology was opposed to spiritualism and was – at least in part – an obstacle to existential fulfillment. The Wandering Earth is the first production to show, on such a huge scale, the Chinese people as being eminently technological, and to normalize the impact of human influence over a nature in recoil. History teaches us that Chinese sciences have always been more pragmatic than theoretical (which is why, in the past, the Chinese discovered gunpowder, the compass, and printing, but never explored theoretical sciences as much as the Europeans did), and there is no reason to believe Chinese artists would take a significantly diverging approach to science-fiction. New sci-fi stories will continue to emerge, as another Liu Cixin book was also adapted in 2019 (the comedy Crazy Alien, directed by Ning Hao), and Amazon has expressed interest in adapting his famous trilogy for the hefty sum of one billion dollars.

With its fascinating blend of influences, The Wandering Earth is a film that positions Chinese sci-fi as a conquering force out of necessity. No more Manifest Destiny (ubiquitous in American SF) or idealised Frontier: at the other end of the world, the only frontier to reach is the one that pushes humanity away from its own extinction. The film is, undoubtedly, a government production devoid of self-criticism and social conscience. It only aims at uniting those who recognise themselves in the Chinese cultural identity. It is thus no surprise that the film ignores one of the most daring chapters of the short story, where the population wrongfully rebelled against the unified government, bringing mankind to the brink of oblivion. One can wonder, however, if it would not be hypocritical to hold it against the film when most American blockbusters – avenging superheroes included – promote a sense of cultural militaristic heroism that seems to be celebrated the world over. Reaching for the stars, the Chinese industry at least promises us one thing: no more fooling around, the future of science-fiction will have no limits. For now, The Wandering Earth revels in the comfort of blockbusting spectacle. We’re ready for the day our journey towards discursivity will truly begin.

The Wandering Earth — Released on Netflix on 30 April, 2019
Directed by Frant Gwo
With Qu Chuxiao, Wu Jing, Zhao Jinmai

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