The Wandering Earth is to the Hollywood effects-driven disaster film what Farewell, My Concubine was to the Hollywood epic historical costume drama: a statement that Chinese cinema can be just as big and empty as the biggest movie machines in the world. Based on a novel by Liu Cixin, the most-celebrated contemporary Chinese science-fiction writer, it generally hews to his hard science approach, with a healthy sprinkling of family drama and PRC-friendly messages about unity and working together toward a common goal.
Set in sometime in the future, when the breakdown and subsequent expansion of the sun has wreaked devastation across the Earth, the planet unites in an effort to ship the whole world off to Alpha Centauri, a 2,500 year journey of which we will see but the barest sliver. After a brief prologue, we join the story 17 years into the trip, as Earth approaches Jupiter in an attempt to utilize its gravity to help propel the planet a bit faster (the only other power source being a set of 10,000 massive engines blasting across the globe). But an unexpected change in Jupiter’s gravity causes earthquakes which shut down the engines and send the Earth on a collision course with the gas giant.
Our heroes include Wu Jing, the single biggest star of this year’s New Year’s slate, as an astronaut on a space station leading the way and managing the Earth’s communications, and his family: father (Ng Man-tat, Stephen Chow’s frequent co-star, here playing a dramatic role), son (Qu Chuxiao), and daughter (Zhao Jinmai). The kids sneak onto the surface (most of the population lives underground now) and get mixed up in the various rescue efforts and schemes that form the mission-based plot, joining various valiant teams along the way. The family drama is perfunctory at best (the son is mad at Wu Jing because his mission has taken him away from home for the past 17 years), with none of the histrionics that marked similar Hollywood films in the 1990s (Armageddon, Volcano, and Independence Day in particular came to mind, but there are many others). When the film is focused on the adventure, the specific tasks the teams have to accomplish, it’s suspenseful and creative, with enough of a solid basis in science and decent enough special effects. There isn’t much more to it than a spectacular story of adventure and sacrifice, and director Frant Gwo doesn’t bring anything other than a basic competence to the picture, but given how bad so many Chinese effects movies have been in recent years, that’s not nothing. It’s the least individual, least personal film of the New Year season, but it’s also the most accessible for North American audiences. It’s extremely easy to see why it’s such a big hit.