The Wandering Earth II (Frant Gwo, 2023)
Four years and many, many crises ago, The Wandering Earth became one of the biggest Chinese blockbusters of all-time. A sci-fi epic about family and sacrifice for the collective good, it effectively welded Hollywood-style disaster effects action to a PRC-friendly message and dominated that year’s Lunar New Year season. This New Year, director Frant Gwo and mega-star Wu Jing are back for a follow-up, not a sequel but rather a prequel, chronicling the series of disasters and heroics that led the Earth, in 2058, to begin its 2,500 year journey to Alpha Centauri to escape the soon-to-explode Sun.
Rather than a straight story, Gwo weaves together three distinct threads. The first and most conventional is Wu Jing’s backstory, which is itself intertwined with the second, a series of disasters and setbacks over the decades it takes to establish the plan for the Earth’s escape. This second story is told in something like the style of Anno Hideaki and Higuchi Shinji’s Shin Godzilla and Shina Ultraman movies: breathless rushes through bureaucracy and exposition: nameless factotums doing work. It’s given a PRC friendly twist with a a wise elder figure, something like the ideal philosopher king of a collectivist party navigating conflicts and alliances with other world leaders with a steady hand and calm assurance. The third story involves Andy Lau as a computer scientist who has digitized his deceased daughter and hopes to use the world’s most advanced AI systems (which should be busy prepping to rescue the world) to resurrect the cute little moppet. These sections don’t make a whole lot of sense, but the basic idea is that Andy keeps breaking all the rules, and eventually ends up saving us all because of it.
As the film begins, the Earth has just realized the enormity of the crisis: the sun is expanding and within 100 years the Earth will be engulfed. There are two options: build 10,000 massive engines to physically move the Earth out of the solar system; or abandon physical reality in favor of digitizing humanity (and then, I guess, launching our servers into space?). The governments in charge of the world (united under the banner of a United Earth Government) choose the first option, but protestors and terrorist groups begin acting against them. The film’s opening action sequence chronicles an attack on a space elevator (Wu Jing just happens to be one of the cadet astronauts on board, giving him his only chance to use his considerable martial arts skills to beat up some bad guys). It’s probably notable that almost all the terrorists appear to be white guys, and the parallels between the anti-scientific response to the COVID pandemic and the unreasonable reactions of the crowds here is hard to miss (whether the best response to that is PRC style control, well. . . no comment.)
The action sequence here though is impeccable, escalating to major disaster while remaining focused on a few key individuals (Wu and his wife, a gregarious Russian pilot, the Leader and his aide, a young woman) amid the masses of pilots, astronauts, technicians, and politicians working around the world to save as much as they can. The film then slows to a crawl for a long middle section where Lau is introduced and his story explained while we skip ahead in time many years, from one crisis to another. On-screen text locates us in space and time, and introduces characters (albeit without the extensive titles of the Shin films), often giving us a ticking clock countdown to the next disaster. Oddly, these titles often spoil the events to come. For example, we don’t know a terrorist attack is coming but then a title will appear saying something like “Six Hours until Terrorist Attack”. The effect is to give the film the feeling of a retrospective, or a historical document: this is something about which we all already know, we’re just looking back at it. It’s an unusual point of view for a film, but it does make sense for a prequel: we know the Earth will head on its way, and we know that Wu Jing will be there when it reaches Jupiter (we saw it in the first film).
The film’s final hour or so picks up the pace again, for an ever-worsening series of crises that lead to the launch of the Earth and the destruction of the moon. Each of our leads are given different ticking clock assignments (Andy Lau has to turn the Internet on so the big engines can be powered up; Wu Jing has to help deploy thousands of nuclear bombs to the moon to make it implode) and everything comes down to the last second and dozens of heroic self-sacrifices (international of course, though with the brave Chinese leading the way). As in the first film, the effects are quite good, and Gwo has a way with coordinating large-scale action to a coherent and suspenseful conclusion. He’s more adventurous with his camera this time, coming up with some truly unusual setups and striking images, but he’s just as indulgent in the film’s most maudlin and patriotic moments.
If you like, you could read the film’s two stars as representative of the PRC (the Beijing-born Wu Jing, star of such propagandistic blockbusters as Wolf Warrior 2 and The Battle of Lake Changjin) and Hong Kong (Andy Lau, now in his sixth decade of superstardom in the former colony). Wu Jing is a military man, even more than he is a family man. Devoted to his wife (who catches his eye by beating up a protestor) and child, he nonetheless sacrifices family life for his duty to the greater, collective good (setting up the generational conflict of the first Wandering Earth movie). Andy Lau is an alienated and individualistic scientist, obsessed with the digitization of life as an expression of his inability to accept the death of his wife and daughter (in a car accident on the way to an amusement park). He freely ignores orders and only cares about the greater project in so far as it allows him the opportunity to pursue his own ends. In the final crisis, Wu expresses martial virtues of duty and sacrifice while delivering enough explosives to implode the moon, while Lau is tasked with bringing Beijing’s servers back online, connecting China to the rest of the world. Only the combination of the two can save us all, yet only one of them makes it to the film that came out in 2019. We’ll see if he ever returns.