The Wandering Earth

So the biggest, most successful film ever in China hit Netflix earlier this month. To … little fanfare. Which some people online immediately took issue with, as The Wandering Earth is based (very, very loosely) on Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem which, even if I wasn’t a huge fan of, did win a bunch of awards and was a huge deal in the Sci-Fi world.

So for The Wandering Earth to release without much fanfare on Netflix, there were a number of cries I recall reading in the news that it was an attempt to “downplay” China’s triumphant entry into the Sci-Fi film world. Or recurrent contributions to, depending on where you were reading. Opinions varied. China being a political hot-topic however, as you can imagine there was a lot of internet flame being built up around this film.

To be fair, some of it is justified. China is … not a great place. Their surveillance and their “social programs” aren’t exactly out of 1984 only because they’re honestly better at it, something that many have attributed to the success of The Wandering Earth in China (so I hear, if you went to see the movie, you got a few extra points put on your social score, which was one of the reasons the film was so big A reader from China has let me know that thankfully this was not the case here. PHEW!). China is headed by a now life-long dictator. People disappear. So when that government backs a big film, well … some people get cagey.

Anyway, I don’t want to dive any further into that side of things because it just flat-out gets messy, and re-education camps don’t have much to do with The Wandering Earth, which yes, I sat down and watched. Because it was the biggest film in China’s history, I’ve enjoy a number of other Chinese films, I do love Sci-Fi, and well, it was right there on Netflix. So … how was this film adaptation of The Three-Body Problem?

EDIT: Another reader let me know in the comments below that despite what I’d read and been told, this film is an adaptation of a short story by Cixin, and not Three-Body. Which makes a bit more sense. However, upon checking, not even the credits of the film point this out (in fact, they continue to refer to the material it is based on as a novel rather than a short) so the confusion may have some root in that.

Clearly, this changes the theory in the next paragraph. END EDIT.

Well, it has nothing to do with Three-Body. And I do mean nothing. I’m fairly certain that the only reason the book is mentioned at all in conjunction with this movie was marketing. I’d even venture to say that the script for Wandering Earth was probably already written, and the writers/producers saw it as a way to get their project green-lit. So they snapped up the rights to Three-Body, started work on their film, and put “Based on” in the credits.

But it’s not. To put it another way, Wandering Earth is as similar to Three-Body as Terminator is to Star Wars. They’re the same overall genre yes … but they’re pretty much unlike one another in every other respect.

Which was fine by me. I found the characters and plotting of Three-Body bland and predictable through most of its length, the only redeeming bit being the alien sequence at the very end. It was a novel written to explore ideas, rather than have character or plot. So I was alright discovering that Wandering Earth didn’t have any of it.

Again, none. I cannot stress this enough: If you are planning on watching The Wandering Earth because you loved The Three-Body Problem, you will be extremely disappointed with it. Because if it is similar to any Sci-Fi at all, Wandering Earth is much closer to Independence Day than anything else.

But that doesn’t mean it’s bad. Not at all. You just have to have the right expectations.

Okay, so what expectations should you have, then? Well, here’s the premise of the flick: In about another decade, the Earth’s sun begins to experience a lot of solar flares and ejections. This wreaks havoc across Earth’s surface, naturally, and it only gets worse when scientists realize that the sun is rapidly destabilizing and beginning to expand. Eventually, it will go nova.

Naturally, this will do bad things to Earth and the rest of the solar system. So mankind deliberates for a while, and decides that the best thing to do is—

Abandon Earth? No, that’s ludicrous. Make Earth into a spaceship. Five of the world’s biggest governments join forces on a joint, all-in project to construct giant engines, nudge Earth out of orbit, and send it careening through the stars to the closest system, Alpha Centuri.

Okay, right away you may have some questions about this plan. Here’s the biggest thing to know about this film before you watch it. The number-one, big rule of The Wandering Earth.

There is no science. 

I’m not joking. This is one of those few films where I could honestly say the Michael Bay Transformers movies seem to have a better grasp of physics and basic science, plus how they work. Everything science-related in this film is ludicrous. And I do mean ludicrous. If any science-related info ends up on the screen in this film, it is laughable. Or so bad someone looking for hard Sci-Fi will probably end up leaving a terrible review (which I believe is in part why this movie has seen a hard reception globally).

It’s just … wow. Where do I even start. Oh, wait, I know. Gravity “spikes.” Yes, the whole peril plot-line of the movie with Earth almost being destroyed comes about because the writers of this film see gravity as “lines” in space, rather than a gradual force. A line that can abruptly change (the “gravity spike” from Jupiter is what kicks everything off).

Or maybe the complete ineptitude of the UEG piloting Earth. Look, this movie expects you to believe that during Earth’s journey across the solar system towards Jupiter, no one noticed that their course drifted by nine freaking degrees. Any pilot will tell you that drift of even a quarter of a degree is noticeable. Nine degrees is … completely unbelievable.

Then again, all the “science” in the movie is. Gravity “spikes” (as in “Oh no, Jupiter’s gravity is changing again, everyone hang on!”). Inconsistent oxygen levels (in one scene, there’s suddenly no oxygen, causing someone to suffocate, while in another scene in the same conditions, a lost helmet is fine). Lack of understanding about temperatures (look, I’ve worked in -40 C conditions without a thermal spacesuit. You will not flash-freeze in seconds. Places where people live now have been colder than that, and it’s not unliveable). Problems with physics (there’s an almost laughable running scene that one character keeps looking out of different windows on a spaceship … always to see either Earth or Jupiter, which means if you’re paying attention, both those planets keep moving around in front, behind, or the sides the ship).

Oh, how about the fact that engines that can move Earth should be putting out a ton of heat, but they don’t. Or the climax of the film being a giant explosion big enough to shove Earth back on course, nevermind that this would crack Earth in half, and nevermind that the part of it that hits the surface is a bigger boom than the Death Star shots from Rogue One, and the characters are at ground zero and somehow survive.

There is no science in this film. Do not expect it. Do not expect logic. Don’t even expect competence from the United Earth Government, as time and time again they prove they have no idea what they’re doing. This is a “for the plot!” movie.

But … if you can shut that part of your brain off (and I did save to laugh at the “science” once I realized what I was in for) … you’ll find a fun film!

Oh man, and a beautiful one. This is one of those movies you may want 4K stills of at the end. For all the lack of science … all that money that would have gone to that apparently went to the visuals.

This movie is a feast for the eyes. Massive shots of a frozen horizon dominated by Jupiter. Gorgeous aerial shots of decaying cities or cool frozen apocalypse vehicles. Or engines big enough to move planets. Visually, this movie is amazing. So many happy artists (at least, I hope so) got to see so many cool scenes visualized here.

How about the plot? Well, outside of the really bad science, it’s a lot of fun! Sure, the characters fall into cliche territory, but not so much it put me off. There’s even a big Independence Day-style speech about the importance of standing up for the hope of a better future at the end.

Again, this is to China what Independence Day was to the US. It’s a similar visual spectacle with terrible science but stellar (hah hah!) visuals.

But there are Chekov’s Guns. There are cool sets. There are characters that don’t make it.

Is it the greatest film I’ve ever seen? No, not by a long shot. But if you can enjoy Independence Day, then you can enjoy this. Even with the random late-90s slow-motion moments (which are just frankly annoying).

Don’t expect anything groundbreaking. Expect a visual treat with some cool sets. Even if they don’t make sense, like the giant trucks that are absurdly spacious, enough that people could live in them, but they don’t even though the trucks are running all the time? Stuff like that really doesn’t make sense. And the science is terrible.

But you do get a pretty astounding visual setting and a fun popcorn experience. Is it flawed? Oh yes. But is it fun? Also yes. And there were little touches that I appreciated. For all the science flaws of the film, someone in the crew took the time to actually show the audience what powered exoskeletons are good for. Rather than a lot of films where they’re just a costume, in Wandering Earth you actually get a decent idea of how they’re helpful. A small thing, but I liked it all the same.

One last thing: I have seen a lot of people online complaining that this movie is a “Hurrah China they saved the world!” flick. To which I have two things to say. One: So what? Again, this is a Chinese Independence Day. Did you see how that flick ended? Sure, it’s not original, but it’s a common film sin that the setting ends up saving the day. I watched an Australian Sci-Fi film last year that had Australia fighting off the alien invasion and saving Earth. That is how movies roll.

Second? Yes, China saves the day … after screwing it up. The film makes a point that all the other nations of the world get their engines back online after the gravity spike (shudder) with time to spare. China is the only one that fails at this task by being unprepared, and thusly kicks off the final act where Earth is doomed. So China saves the day … after being the one to break it in the first place. Still fairly standard as far as plots go, but it could have been a lot more gung-ho pro-China.

Actually, a bit on that if I may. This film straddled some interesting territory as far as China’s own jingoism goes (at least as I see it), and I’m sure those more familiar with China will find more to examine closely. One of my favorite laughs in the film was actually a very tongue-in-cheek poke at interrogation practices … but at the same time I’m unsure if that was to try and joke about “Oh, we’re China, we don’t really do that (we do)” or the creators poking fun at China for having such practices in the first place. I don’t know … but there’s probably some interesting subtext here that had some back and forth battles with the censor-happy Chinese government.

Okay, at the end of it all though? It was fun flick. No science. NO science. A friend of mine said it compared on that end favorably with 2012. But where the plot in that movie was trash, the plot here was pretty all right. It won’t be a marvel you keep coming back to … but it is a fun flick with great visuals that you can enjoy with a bucket of popcorn and strong disbelief suspenders.

Just, you know, shut the science part of your brain off.

2 thoughts on “The Wandering Earth

  1. I’d like to point out that this movie isn’t an adaptation of the Three Body problem (and I don’t know where that idea comes from). It’s an adaptation of the novella The Wandering Earth which was also written by Liu Cixin but does not take place in the same setting.

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  2. I’m going to guess it has to do with the film’s credits only saying “Based on the Novel by Liu Cixin” (I just checked) while both not actually specifying the name of the book except in the Chinese credits and calling it a novel rather than a short. So translation error mixed with familiarity. I know the reviews I read of the film, as well as previews, continually touted it as an adaptation of “Three Body” which didn’t puzzle me that much because I’ve seen so many adaptations in name only.

    That said, I’m glad for the update. I’ll edit the original post right now.

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