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Wu Jing as Liu Peiqiang in his astronaut suit in The Wandering Earth.
Martial arts star Wu Jing as Liu Peiqiang in The Wandering Earth.

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Netflix’s The Wandering Earth is a thrilling mix of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Armageddon, and Gravity

The record-breaking Chinese blockbuster turns the familiar into the fantastic

If a movie that features two imminent space disasters, several stoic sacrifices, and a man screaming and shooting his monstrously large machine gun into the air and screaming, “SCREW YOU, DAMN JUPITER!” sounds like your idea of a good time, have I got the movie for you.

When The Wandering Earth hit theaters earlier this year, touted as the first Chinese space epic, the blockbuster quickly rose to become China’s second highest-grossing film of all time, as well as the second highest-grossing non-English language film of all time. It’s a bona fide hit, which makes it a coup for Netflix, which snapped up the global streaming rights, then dropped it on the platform with little fanfare on May 6. One of the biggest movies in recent history is now just a click away, without you realizing it.

Directed by Frant Gwo and adapted from a novella by Hugo Award-winner Liu Cixin, The Wandering Earth more than earns its reputation as a smash. It’s exactly the mix of cheesy and crowd-pleasing that you’d expect from a blockbuster, with eye-popping CGI sci-fi set dressing to give it a little extra oomph.

In the world of the film, the impending death of the Sun leads to the creation of the United Earth Government, a single global government, and the initiation of the Wandering Earth Project. Earth will be propelled out of the Solar System via giant thrusters, turning the planet into a living spaceship en route to the Alpha Centauri system. In the meantime, humanity retreats to vast underground cities (of limited capacity, and filled by lottery), as the surface of the planet is made uninhabitable by the effects of the cessation of Earth’s rotation as well as the drop in temperature caused by the increasing distance from the Sun.

Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao) dreams of a life on the surface. In the 17 years since his father, Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing), left him to take a position on the space station that guides Earth on its new course, Liu Qi has developed something of a rebellious streak. In an attempt to escape the quotidian, he steals his grandfather’s (Ng Man-tat) vehicle license, barters for two illegal thermal suits, and takes his adopted little sister (Zhao Jinmai) along with him for a joyride on the surface. These petty crimes, however, put him in the wrong place at the wrong time — or maybe the right place at the right time.

As it turns out, the plan to save Earth requires a second plan to save Earth. The current trajectory puts it on a collision course with Jupiter, and earthquakes caused by Jupiter’s gravitational spike have put some of Earth’s engines out of commission. The truck Liu Qi has stolen is commandeered by a handful of military officers to transport a lighter core to restart the nearest planetary thruster engine, and so he — and his grandfather, sister, and a few civilians similarly caught up in the chaos — becomes a part of the plan to save the world.

Zhao Jinmai as a despairing Han Duoduo in a space suit in The Wandering Earth.
Zhao Jinmai as a despairing Han Duoduo in The Wandering Earth.
Image: China Film Co., Ltd.

The Wandering Earth is that it’s a blast. It’s an amalgamation of every single science-fiction action trope, with errant A.I., daddy issues, sacrifice for the sake of the greater good, a zero gravity ballet, and heartfelt appeals to humanity and hope for the future. The sheer amount of stuff that’s packed into the movie make a little unwieldy, yes, but there’s always another gonzo set piece on the way just when the movie starts feeling stretched thin.

The one-note characterizations also manage to skate by on the strength of the performances (Ng Man-tat and Wu Jing wring drop of pathos from the action-forward script) as well as a few inventions unique to the movie that help keep it from being totally rote. Gwo’s vision of the future includes a grenade-like device that turns into an oversized, protective hamster ball, as well as a curiously (refreshingly?) minimal American presence. American pop culture’s fingerprints are all over the movie, but the characters are almost entirely Chinese, with the exception of a few Russian cosmonauts, and almost every character gets a heroic beat rather than a single character becoming the planet’s savior.

Even the music feels like it’s been cribbed from previous movies in the same genre — Roc Chen’s score is like Hans Zimmer with emotional manipulation cranked up to 100 — but all of those familiar aspects don’t scuttle The Wandering Earth’s effectiveness as a box office behemoth. The movie’s a little silly, but it’s the perfect way to kill two hours with friends and a bucket of popcorn. Every beat is bigger and goofier than the last, to the point that it’s impossible not to cheer when — I’d say “if,” but the surprises in a movie like this aren’t in the destination but the journey — things finally work out. The film is spectacle after spectacle, and thank goodness for that.