I watched The Wandering Earth on Netflix and found the Chinese-made film (based on an award-winning novella written by a Chinese author) interesting. Science fiction movies have been made primarily in the USA for a long time and have been exported to the world. Relatively few science fiction stories have come back to the US from other countries. I’m looking at The Wandering Earth as an example of what foreign science fiction may offer the world in the future…though that may be a bit unfair, because this is in fact was only one film, one intended to represent just itself.
Numerous SPOILERS for The Wandering Earth follow, though I will leave some things out about how things take place, in case you decide you want to watch it.
The background of the story is that scientists in the near future discover our sun is showing signs of turning into a red giant. The sun will expand and destroy the Earth. So all the nations on the planet rally together to form “UEG” (United Earth Government), which devotes a massive effort to put colossal engines on the planet that allow first the rotation of the Earth to be stopped and then the entire planet to be moved out of orbit, with the idea of relocating it around a nearby star (which was not named in the movie but probably was Alpha Centauri). Human cities go underground at locations near the massive engines used to push Earth away from the sun as surface temperatures on our planet plummet.
Planet Earth is directed towards Jupiter to get a gravity assist from swinging near the gas giant planet on the way out of the Solar System, arriving 17 years after leaving Earth orbit. Planet Earth is proceeded by a massive space station that leads the way for the planet, a space station with a Chinese astronaut (Liu Peiqiang) aboard, who is the father of the story’s main protagonist, Liu Qi, who lives in the underground version of Shanghai.
Liu Qi acquires his grandfather’s driving credentials and takes a giant truck used for mining on the now-exotic surface of the Earth for a joyride, taking with him Han Duoduo, whom his grandfather rescued as a baby girl from the massive tsunami that resulted when Earth’s rotation stopped and who is treated like his adopted sister. The joy ride takes on enormous significance when major earthquakes result from Earth approaching Jupiter, which shuts down a number of its engines, which runs the risk of Planet Earth approaching too close to the gas giant and being destroyed. Liu Qi winds up becoming the driver for a rescue crew who seek to restart the engines that will save Earth.
An important sub-plot is based on MOSS, the computer system that runs the space station flying in the vanguard of Earth (who was rather like HAL 9000 of 2001 A Space Odyssey), dictating that the station should save itself and fly on to the other star on its own. (I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that Liu Pieqiang foils the computer’s plans.)
So me, hard science fiction fan that I am, wondered immediately why the planners of this mission didn’t anticipate the earthquakes and why were the engines so easily shut down and why is it that they were approaching so close to Jupiter in the first place, etc. And the solution to this problem they eventually adopted (after the engines didn’t prove to be enough), er, yeah, was pretty terribly dumb. That is, their idea was to ignite Jupiter’s atmosphere, which had absorbed a fair amount of oxygen from the Earth, to cause a shock wave to get Earth back in position–which is SO wrong in so many ways (the explosion would not neatly travel straight back to Earth, even if it did, the nature of an explosion is to deliver a deadly high acceleration punch, and who is to say the unregulated explosion would be enough–or too much, etc, etc).
As already mentioned, I was perhaps unfairly watching this as being symbolic of Chinese (and even foreign in general) science fiction as a whole and was lamenting the fact that plot-induced stupidity seems to be a trick they learned very well from numerous US-made sci fi films. But after watching the movie I read the Wikipedia article on the film and discovered the original novella by Liu Cixin didn’t include such nonsense. For the original story, the main crisis of the tale featured a civil war erupting on Earth based on the idea that UEG had lied to everyone (though they hadn’t). So the original story that inspired the movie was in many ways quite realistic.
So I suppose the Chinese film focused on the more visually dramatic rather than what made sense. This very much happens with US-made films as well, so I didn’t see that as particularly indicative of Chinese or foreign science fiction.
Also similarly to US-made films, the special effects were good, even if a bit overly dramatic at moments. (Though the glimpses of Jupiter’s great spot through the ice storms on Earth’s surface were pretty awesome.)
By the way, the film had no graphic violence or nudity, but some swear words appeared in the subtitles.
Note though the story does have some features I doubt you’d see in a US-made film. One example that comes to mind was its willingness to kill off important characters, which US films are usually more reluctant to do.
The movie also features a brief prayer, though obviously one played for a bit of a joke, because the character prays first to Einstein, then to Stephen Hawking, then to Buddha. Still, what was the last US-made sci fi film in which anyone prayed at all?
The film did not turn on its head the common assumption in US-made science fiction that only one language will be spoken in humanity’s future. I mean, US-made movies usually assume everyone speaks English in the future and you might have expected a Chinese-made film to assume everyone speaks Chinese. But no–the story focuses on Chinese characters, so is mostly in Chinese, but even they on a few occasions speak bits of English to one another. Representatives of the UEG speak Chinese but also English and for several important sections of the movie, French. Liu Pieqiang is assisted by a Russian Cosmonaut, Makarov, and weirdly Makarov speaks to Liu in Russian and Liu replies in Chinese and they understand each other just fine. We could say that the Chinese language seems to have a more prominent role in the future world of story than it does in today’s world, but it’s hardly a mirror image of, say, Star Trek in which you’d be lucky to hear even one word of a language other than English spoken by a human character in the tale.
A unique issue related to language was accents: one of the secondary characters from Shanghai had blond hair and said his father is from China and his mother is Australian–and his way of speaking Chinese sounded different to me than everyone else in what must have been an Australian accent that probably was hilarious to Chinese ears. Yet the humor was lost on me. He just sounded different from everyone else.
In fact, one major difference in watching this movie for me was I haven’t watched many Chinese-language films at all. And while I do watch foreign films at times, I’ve studied more than a few world languages and usually have some idea what characters are saying without the subtitles (even in Korean I recognize a little). But I’m clueless in Chinese. I feel I lost a lot of the nuance of the acting by my reliance on the subtitles, though I did appreciate the bits of English and French, and even some of the Russian in the story. But that makes me think of how strange it must be to watch an American film without speaking any English–though in fact, what happens is watchers learn some English by watching English-language movies…
As we all may be learning more Chinese if more movies like The Wandering Earth are made in the future…and I think more such movies will be made. While I doubt they will replace the US film industry, we’re going to see more speculative fiction from outside the United States, most likely…and by the way I would recommend watching this particular movie for all of you reading this, even though I wouldn’t say it was great.
If any of you saw the movie or read The Wandering Earth novella, what are your thoughts on the story? And what do you think about the future of science fiction movies produced outside of the USA?