It’s hard not to get the sense that you’re getting a glimpse of the future of movies with a ticket to The Wandering Earth, a Chinese space spectacular that earned more than $300 million in its first week when it opened in its native country earlier this month, and has since opened in U.S. theaters and been acquired by Netflix. Set 2,500 years in the future, it’s a hopeful but pragmatic sci-fi picture that understands what American blockbusters are still loath to admit: Responding to climate change will pose infrastructural challenges on a massive order and require drastic measures on a planetary scale. Perhaps it takes a country like China, which is accustomed to a manic rate of construction and grandness of organizational possibility, to seriously consider how dramatically humanity will have to reimagine our ways of life to survive such a catastrophic force. But in this film’s dystopian future, it’s not heat that threatens life but a life-snuffing frost.
Directed by Frant Gwo, The Wandering Earth turns our planet into a spacecraft—one that hurtles away from the dying sun, in search of a new solar system. The Earth no longer spins, but travels across the galaxy, powered by a constellation of engines across one half of its landmass. What remains of humanity resides in underground cities grouped around the engines, while the uninhabitable surface is reserved for specialized workers who mine the fuel to feed those engines. Despite the production’s team of scientist consultants, the physics in The Wandering Earth is probably a lot of hooey. But the film’s world building, which takes up much of its first third, is undeniably novel and fascinating. Rarely does a film brag such a technocratic heart.
Three miles below the ground, the setting of Beijing III certainly holds a lot more interest than the hero, Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao), a rash and angry young man who busts his beloved adopted preteen sister (Zhao Jinmai) out of school to surprise her for Lunar New Year with an (illegal) trip to the surface, where neither has ever been. An unimaginable distance away, Liu Qi’s father, astronaut Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing), prepares to return to Earth and reunite with his family after 17 years of service aboard the International Space Station, which helps the world government navigate the planet.
The characters remain archetypes, but the film eventually earns its syrupy sentimentality. The Wandering Earth isn’t afraid to dump mountains of exposition, and catching up to its elaborate setting can feel arduous for an effects-driven action-thriller, especially when the subtitles whiz by or fast cuts dash through plot points. But the film evinces such a confidence in its details—and has such fun with futuristic gizmos like Liu Qi’s robot limbs—that the lack of hand-holding feels more often like a refusal to go easy on the audience than inept filmmaking.
It isn’t long before the siblings are caught by the authorities, then forced to participate in a dangerous rescue mission. Along for the ride is Mike Sui’s comic-relief character, Tim, a half-Chinese, half-white Australian whose cultural inauthenticity—an occasional trope in contemporary Asian cinema—becomes a running gag. It’s during the mission that father and son learn that a spike in Jupiter’s gravitational pull has set Earth on a collision course with the larger, gaseous planet. As Jupiter nears, its oily eye dominates the Earth’s sky, under which humanity cowers beneath its unseeing, eldritch gaze. As terrifying as the orange planet is, it’s also a technical marvel, along with so many of the film’s special effects. Several action sequences, including a standout in the elevator shaft of a crumbling skyscraper, are designed to make the heart skip a beat.
You could spend a lot of The Wandering Earth counting the movies it borrows from: the terrifying indifference of space in Gravity, the frustration at humanity’s myopia in Arrival, the know-it-all-ism and insistent red glare of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, a distant cousin of which attempts to prevent Liu Peiqiang from a last-ditch effort to save his son and the billions of others on Earth from Jupiter’s noxious atmosphere. It’s difficult to imagine planetary genocide, but The Wandering Earth perhaps helps us visualize it better when the leaders of the world government decide at one point to place all their hopes in the dream that the embryos and plant seeds stored on the ISS might restart the human species one day after Earth is destroyed. All that ingenuity, and we still couldn’t manage to survive for more than a couple hundred thousand years.
Do films about averting global annihilation inspire by reminding us that climate cataclysm need not be inevitable, or are they no more than soothing fantasies of cooperation and rationality? As last year’s First Reformed illustrated, no other issue so deservingly sparks despair. The Wandering Earth arguably reflects the Chinese party line in demonstrating that bureaucracy can manage doom via central planning and clever engineering. The urgency of the crisis leaves no room for dissent. It’s certainly an appealing notion, and one increasingly harder to imagine on this side of the Pacific. Does such a belief in the hypercompetence of the state constitute pro-government propaganda in China, as some have argued? Perhaps. But at this point, it might be the best hope we’ve got.