The Wandering Earth: Chinese sci-fi blockbuster poised to go global

Image credit: Chinese cinemagoers are flocking to see The Wandering Earth

China’s first sci-fi blockbuster has an eccentric premise, but also more solid science and smart ideas than it suggests

Never mind AI, ‘The Wandering Earth’ shows China matching the US in another high-profile part of the global economy, the Hollywood blockbuster. The year’s biggest box office hit so far, it has earned more than £500m since Chinese New Year, and become the latest slice of slick Mandarin multiplex movie-making to grab international attention.

‘The Wandering Earth’ is China’s first sci-fi apocalypse movie. Think ‘Armageddon’, but instead of trying to nuke a trespassing rock, we literally move the Earth.

The Sun is to become a red giant. Mankind dots mountainous engines around the globe to pilot itself away from incineration and make a 2,500-year journey to a ‘safe’ star, Proxima Centauri (aka Alpha Centauri C). But at the first pit stop – for a gravitational slingshot around Jupiter – the gas giant captures rather than propels our planet. Hydrogenberg ahoy! Who can save the day?

Outlandish? You bet. Astrophysicist Lijun Gou, from the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), has noted that even if we could design and build jets with enough thrust to stop the Earth’s rotation and set off in a retooled Life Star, we could not harvest enough fuel.

Gou is also cold on the choice of Proxima Centauri. “It is also not the best choice for our Earth,” he writes. “One of the reasons is that the habitable zone suffers from the frequent stellar storms from the host star. Also, one planet has been found around the Proxima Centauri in 2016, and I don’t think it is easy to harbour a second planet within its habitable zone.”

Yet here’s the thing. Gou liked the film. He calls it “a quality movie” that compares favourably to ‘The Martian’, a touchstone for many scientists willing to accept some rule-​breaking if a work generally respects their disciplines.

Here, we must look at its aims as a film. It is primarily very enjoyable popcorn entertainment. You can watch it on that basis alone. But it also offers a metaphor for climate change: existential global challenges demand the broadest social and scientific cooperation. That’s the message amid the mayhem.

The cast is mostly Chinese, but the film carefully name-checks contributions from other countries at the climax as a multi­national throng of rescue teams strives to insert a firing pin that will restart one of Earth’s engines (though it is weird to watch a blockbuster where Brits are heroes not villains, and, in an unquestionably cheeky but still pleasing swipe at Donald Trump, the world government speaks French).

On the technical side, meanwhile, four of Gou’s CAS colleagues advised director Frant Gwo to help make the film’s dilemmas “credible”. We usually dismiss such claims as PR, but in ‘The Wandering Earth’, you do sense their contribution.

Rather than taking the Michael Bay route of blowing stuff up and asking you to hum the CGI, Gwo places greater faith in verisimilitude. He invests heavily in world-building to counterbalance the overarching premise.

The technology, living environments and tools used are believable extensions of current capabilities. Without blundering into spoilers, the portrayal of the film’s AI, MOSS, is a good example. It is the antagonist, but when its motivations are revealed they echo a fundamental scientific debate over how AIs are constructed, not glib notions of innate sociopathy.

Further helped by committed performances from an ensemble cast and production design that favours the utilitarian over dystopian cyberpunk, Gwo earns his reward, the necessarily huge suspension of disbelief.

It reflects a strategy espoused by Cixin Liu, author of the original ‘Wandering Earth’ novella (see ‘His Big Bang Theory’). As he posted on China’s Weibo microblogging site: “I’ve always thought that good sci-fi is about describing the craziest fantasies as realistically as news reports,” he posted. “‘The Wandering Earth’ has done this with epic scenes full of gravitas.”

The film succeeds therefore by following Liu’s and any other appropriate rules with skill and imagination.

Gwo fills out the Apocalypse bingo-card of themes and tropes: familial conflict, rogue computer, personal sacrifice, fetishised hardware, grimy subterranean refuges and, naturally, smithereening the landscape. But he approaches each in an honest way, without pretension, smug irony or hectoring the audience.

Yes, Gwo cherry-picks scientific ideas to service the plot and the drama, but not in a way that corrupts them. Rather, he builds on them imaginatively. As easy as that is to describe, The Wandering Earth reminds us how hard it is to achieve.

Netflix has bought the international rights to The Wandering Earth, including the UK. That’s the good news. It will promote and make the film available to a wide international audience. However, I hope that Netflix will follow the policy as it has for other truly big titles of giving The Wandering Earth a theatrical release before or alongside streaming.

Even the best 4k UHD displays will not capture the film’s impact and frequent beauty. If you are a big sci-fi fan, maybe you might want to give Netflix a nudge.  To see The Wandering Earth on the biggest screen you can is your mission. For me, it was the first time since Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk that the IMAX markup felt fully justified.

From book to screen

His Big Bang Theory

Cixin Liu is China’s bestselling science-fiction author and a winner of the prestigious Hugo award. He wrote the original novella on which ‘The Wandering Earth’ is based. Film and novella share the same premise, an earth fleeing solar catastrophe. But Liu’s story raises no threat of planetary collision. It is a first-person narrative where the film features an ensemble, and its focus is on the social and psychological effects of the journey. In an obviously unintended parallel that will nevertheless intrigue British viewers, many of those effects are driven by increasingly bitter conflict between leavers and remainers.

It doesn’t resolve well. Liu’s strengths are elegant and arresting prose and imagery, coupled with believable characters. He can throw you into a much-changed physical and scientific landscape, but the ideas remain powerful and contemporary. Western fans call all that the ‘Liu-niverse’ and, in those respects, the film inhabits the same world as his writing.

In print or on the big screen, the Liu-niverse is worth visiting. Alongside ‘The Wandering Earth’, Liu’s ‘The Three-Body Problem’ trilogy is a must for any serious lover of contemporary sci-fi.

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