The Wandering Earth
Move aside, Serenity. A new movie on Netflix is coming for your title of best worst film of 2019, and this one is in space.
The Wandering Earth was a blockbuster motion picture in China, but was plopped onto Netflix here with very little fanfare. The streaming service has been focused on promoting its own original programming lately (and making me watch the trailer for Wine Country dozens of times), so this wasn’t a big surprise, but the silent rollout was a little confounding.
Before I get into the plot, I want to extend this possible caveat. The version of The Wandering Earth on Netflix is dubbed into English and I have a good reason to question the quality of the translation. Fairly often, the spoken dialogue deviates from the optional subtitles. The plot seems consistent between the two translations, but there are enough discrepancies, and those differences impact the overall feel of the film, to be of note. Also, I’m going to veer a bit into spoiler territory below. Consider yourself warned.
The Wandering Earth begins just as our planet is in grave danger. The sun is expanding and it will soon kill all life as we know it unless we take drastic measures. The United Earth Government decides to make a giant space station, put a bunch of engines on one side of the globe, and move the Earth to another solar system. No problem. To help preserve life as much as possible, people burrow below ground and live in subterranean cities five kilometers down. Why not? What could possibly go wrong with this plan? Funny I should ask, because just as Earth is breezing by Jupiter, it gets sucked in by that massive orb’s gravitational pull. The only way to escape is to light Jupiter’s atmosphere on fire and use it like a celestial jet engine to get back on course.
Merely summarizing the ludicrous plot of global doom leaves out all the heaps of clichéd interpersonal relationships in The Wandering Earth. There are father-son issues, a guy who has a problem with authority, and lots of shouting while crying and reaching out to save someone who’s falling in slow motion. The soaring score and obvious emotional markers feel cheap and pandering, and are no substitute for actual character development.
You know what else is no substitute for character development? The characters telling us, multiple times, the single facet to their persona. Moments after meeting her, we hear Duoduo (Jin Mai Jaho) say three times how much she likes food. Not to be outdone, Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao) tells his sister, and thus the audience, that he’s a genius. He says it as if it’s a fact, and not an opinion. We’re told what the characters are like, not shown.
I’m willing to give The Wandering Earth the benefit of doubt when it comes it its visual quality. It was made to be shown in IMAX 3D, which leaves plenty of potential loss on my television at home, streaming. It looks like a poorly rendered video game to me, but the ambition behind the huge sets is admirable.
This isn’t to say that The Wandering Earth isn’t fun to watch. If anything, it veers into the “so bad it’s good” territory of cinema’s terrain. It also offers also plenty of opportunities to examine Chinese projections of armageddon and bureaucracy, which is fascinating. However, none of these elements make it a good film.