'Wandering' gives sci-fi genre films a boost

"The Wandering Earth" may not be the best in the years to come, but it has all the highlights of a classy doomsday outer-space epic.
'Wandering' gives sci-fi genre films a boost

“The Wandering Earth” was the surprising winner during China’s lucrative Spring Festival period, rocketing from fourth in the box office to top, and closing the seven-day holiday with a record-breaking US$349 million.

It was the highest one-week grosser in China and second only to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” in the world.

With an average 8/10 rating on movie review sites and with more likely screenings, it could possibly break more records in weeks ahead. It also enjoyed a limited release in North America, and averaged a rating of 8.0 on IMDB from some 3,000 reviews.

The film fraternity and fans expected it to do well following great pre-screening reviews, but few had bet that it would break records. Many of them attributed its success to being the first Chinese big-budget sci-fi, or an opportunity to watch Chinese actors float in outer space after Chang’e-4 landed on the far side of the moon earlier this year. But I think there is more to the success of the film — not necessarily a groundbreaker when compared with international blockbusters in the same genre, but definitely an indicator of the potential of Chinese filmmakers in dealing with sci-fi stories.

“The Wandering Earth” may not be the best in the years to come, but it has all the highlights of a classy doomsday outer-space epic, a solid script, grandeur scenarios, above-average special effects and above all, a little Chinese twist.

The Sun is exploding. By lottery, half of the population is left to die, and the other half hides in the underground cities and takes the Earth with them on a long journey fleeing the exploding galaxy — hoping to reach another one after 2,500 years.

“We have to take home with us. It is too expensive!” director Guo Fan joked about taking the Earth on the run in a recent interview.

Intriguingly, the director also said that he did not have the international audience in mind while making the movie.

Yet, I think this might be a movie that appeals to an global audience, not in any exotic sense, but because it highlights the similarities and differences between East and West, and the fact that we are really not so far apart.

The differences lie in details while the resemblance rises above that.

You may call it Homer’s Odyssey while I think of Li Bai’s poems, but both are longing to return home, a recurring theme in “The Wandering Earth.”

When the protagonist, a rebellious and talented young man, decides to turn back and rescue the mission team, and international rescuers join the effort, it becomes a case of individualism versus collectivism. Think of the many Hollywood blockbusters where the protagonists turned from a lone wolf to appreciate teamwork.

The film is adapted from a short story by Liu Cixin, a recipient of top science fiction prize Hugo Award. Liu is most noted for his international best-seller — “The Three-Body Problem” trilogy.

“The Wandering Earth” reminds me of Liu’s efforts to transplant Chinese culture and characters into the science fiction universe created by writers such as Arthur C. Clarke.

It also reminds me of the engineer/author’s oddly matched blunt cruelty — the selfishness of humans or the unintended consequences of good intentions — and imaginative romanticism.

This time, in “The Wandering Earth,” home is on the run with us.

It is China’s first big-budget sci-fi, a long-awaited dream come true, especially as previous attempts by other filmmakers had failed — the most notable being the adaptation of “The Three-Body Problem” that has dragged on for years, with reports suggesting poor quality of first cuts.

Quite a few movie buffs attributed the success of “The Wandering Earth” to the pride in homegrown products.

Certainly, the rapidly growing Chinese movie market and its audience have long demanded more — both in terms of diversity and quality. Those who can deliver both are often rewarded at box office, especially if it’s the first in its genre.

The first Disney-fantasy-like “Monster Hunt” was a raging success. The hot-blood-Rambo type “Wolf Warrior 2” also broke many records and swept the social media platforms. The “Red Sea Operation,” which is not so unlike the “Saving Private Ryan” type, quietly won over the younger generation, surprising them by the grand scale of the production and the solid details in the war sequences.

The “Dallas Buyers Club” type “Dying to Survive” inspired many to believe a realist drama can also become a blockbuster.

These may not be the best Chinese production in fantasy, action, war, realist movies, but they have opened the doors for more and better movies in their respective genres.

“The Wandering Earth” is no exception, and I look forward to seeing more and better sci-fi productions.

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