A critique of "The Wandering Earth"

Posted on Jun 19, 2019
Raleigh, NC

I really like Chinese movies. Zhang Yimou’s (张艺谋) “To Live” (活着) is probably my favorite movie of all time. I also have enjoyed reading Liu Cixin’s (刘慈欣) “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” (地球往事) trilogy, even though book three had a plot line that literally spanned millions of years. So I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of “The Wandering Earth” (流浪地球) on Netflix. How sad I was when my high expectations were brought so low by a movie that could have passed as any one of the many post-apocalyptic movies Hollywood has defecated onto the viewing public in the past few years.

The story starts with a boy, his father and grandfather viewing Jupiter through a telescope. It’s soon revealed that the Sun is expanding and Earth must leave the solar system’s orbit to survive. The father is launched into space as part of an international effort to guide the Earth out of the solar system, and those remaining Earth’s surface, including the boy and his grandfather, must take shelter in newly-built underground cities. The plot then jumps 17 years into the future where Earth is nearing Jupiter’s orbit. Earth’s escape plan, much those of many deep-space satellites, is to use Jupiter’s gravitational field to accelerate and throw the Earth onto a new trajectory. Meanwhile, Earth is propelled forward by giant thrusters built into the Earth’s surface. Alas, a calculation goes awry and the Earth is instead pulled too far into Jupiter’s gravitational field and will soon collide with Jupiter.

Luckily for the Earth, there’s a set of splunky, heroic characters who choose hope over fatalism and try to save the Earth anyway. Gang Zi, the boy from earlier, and his grandfather find themselves requisitioned by an elite commando team whose mission is to restart the thrusters on the Earth’s equator, in an attempt to push the Earth back out of Jupiter’s gravitational field. Unfortunately, this mission fails and the United Earth World Government broadcasts a message to everyone that the Earth will collide in seven days and to say goodbye to your loved ones. Yet Gang Zi remembers something his father once told him–that Jupiter’s atmosphere is made mostly of hydrogen, and so he figures that if they could blow up Jupiter it would push Earth out of its gravitational field. Heroic antics ensue, including literally pushing a rocket and manually fiddling with a thruster’s internal electronics, so that the team of heroes is able to create a much larger flame that almost reaches Jupiter. All is left is for the father, still in space, to navigate his space station into the flame to extend its explosion so that it reaches Jupiter. In his sacrifice, Jupiter ignites and the Earth is pushed away.

My problems with the movie are manifold. First, the plot is simply dumb. If the entire planet were riding on setting a trajectory around Jupiter, people would get it right. The movie asks us to believe that individual acts of courage are what matters in highly complex space missions. This is almost never the case, rather complete and accurate planning is what makes the difference between a successful and failed mission. While all action movies have us suspend disbelief, “The Wandering Earth” asks us to suspend all cognition as well. Throughout the movie science and scientists say certain things are or are not possible, and the main characters disregard what the scientists say, instead opting for “hope.” One scene sticks out in particular: scientists predict there’s 0% chance that igniting Jupiter will push the Earth out of its strong gravitational field. Not 1%, not 0.1%, not 0.000001%, but 0%. This means it won’t happen. Yet, this is, in fact, what happens. What are we supposed to make of this?

Second, although the movie takes place in some fancy, high-tech future where thrusters that literally move the earth exist, somehow trucks are still being driven by steering wheels and don’t even have collision prevention. Automated steering with collision prevention exists now in 2019, why isn’t it being used in the future? And why is the best way to break a window still to use a machine gun? Both of these elements seem to be included only to create suspense and excitement in a way that people can relate to, but the movie’s internal consistency suffers greatly as a result. The movie would have been more believable had the producers thought a bit more about world building and tried to create an internally consistent world.

And that is my main gripe about the movie. The only instances of the story developing are those that are needed to create a stage upon which action scenes take place. The movie lurches from one pulsing scene of excitement to another, with short instances of unnecessary comedy interspersed throughout. It feels like it was made for an audience that can’t stomach any complexity, or even remember the last step in a plot line. Ultimately, this dumbing down of the movie fits into the trend of CGI-heavy, plot-light action movies coming out of Hollywood today. And in one respect, at least, “The Wandering Earth” succeeds–it has shown us that China’s production houses can produce movies that are just as banal and uninspiring as those coming out of Hollywood.