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Netflix’s Space Sweepers is a live-action riff on Cowboy Bebop

South Korea’s first space blockbuster is an action-packed, jazzy found-family story

Heralded as the first blockbuster Korean space opera, Jo Sung-hee’s Space Sweepers quickly moves to undercut any grandeur that might come from that statement. During the launch of the spaceship Victory, Jo turns the camera downward to the pilot’s feet to note his completely worn-out socks, immediately undoing any possible glamour from the idea of space travel. That’s where Space Sweeper’s interests lie: with the scrabbling, needy people who would fall between the cracks in its hypothetical brave new world.

The year is 2092, and Earth is borderline uninhabitable, overrun by arid deserts and the dry orange color grading of Blade Runner 2049. Everyone who can afford it has moved off the ruined planet to live in orbit on a seemingly utopian colony named Eden, built and ruled by a megacorporation.

Jo’s film is concerned with the people who can’t afford the benefits of the new world, including Victory’s eponymous “space sweepers.” The protagonists make their living as a crew of freelance interplanetary rag-and-bone men who gather the scraps the wealthy utopians leave behind. The sweepers are perpetually broke, as destitution looms far more ominously than the cold vacuum of space. (“Between repairs and fines, we just pay debt with more debt,” one of the crew complains early on.)

Their precarious but straightforward existence is interrupted by their accidental discovery of a young child named Dorothy, who turns out to be an android supposedly containing a nuclear weapon. The crew initially sees Dorothy as a golden goose, and they quickly look to ransom her to the highest bidder to buy themselves out of poverty. But they of course warm to her, and take the film down a reasonably predictable but genuinely moving found-family arc. Though it’s predictable, it’s still delightful to see this cast of hardened stock types soften to Dorothy’s presence, unable to mask their glee at being included in her drawings, or referred to as “Uncle.”

At first, the crew simply focuses on accumulating enough money to buy their way to fulfillment, whatever that means to each member. To former government operative Tae-ho (Song Joong-ki, a frequent collaborator with director Jo), it’s paying the authorities to find and identify the missing body of a family member he lost long ago in an accident. Effectively, he’s being charged for closure. There’s a little less to learn about the cool and arrogant Captain Jang, Kim Tae-ri of The Handmaiden fame, whose desire for revenge is kept vague until late in the film. Meanwhile, Jin Sun-kyu (The Good, The Bad and the Weird) gets to have fun mugging as former gang leader Tiger Park, who simply finds the blue-collar work humiliating and wants to buy his way out. He relives his glory days by bragging about how many hands he chopped off in his prime.

The interplay between these characters is the film’s saving grace, and the reason it’s still mostly a joy to watch, even when its designation as “the first of its kind” gradually becomes an albatross around its neck. Though the characters and scenario are familiar, the film is still at its best when observing the antics of the misfit crew, whether they’re getting in outrageous fistfights over low-stakes poker games or giving each other makeovers. Ironically, in spite of its supposedly lofty status, Space Sweepers is best as a hangout comedy.

That said, the crew’s vaguely sketched motivations sometimes threaten to become the film’s undoing, as the process of getting to know them is its greatest strength. Entertaining as they are, outside of Tae-ho, they can feel one-dimensional. There’s one exception: a military robot named Bubs. Bubs’ desire to assimilate with their human crew members is implicitly told through offhand dialogue and their amusingly cozy-looking loungewear. Their arc is surprisingly gentle, and while its (brief) exploration of gender identity mostly exists at the film’s fringes, it’s a pleasant deviation from the frequent navel-gazing and pseudo-profundity of most “AI that wants to be human” stories.

Outside of Bubs’ story, there’s little subtext to Space Sweepers, which wears most of its implications and class-warfare messaging on its sleeve. It’s full of narrative beats that’ll be immediately familiar to anyone, not just science fiction enthusiasts: it wraps a fairly traditional found-family plot within a grander conspiracy to wipe out the poor people still stranded on Earth. In contention with the crew of the Victory is a seemingly benevolent CEO (Richard Armitage), who quickly reveals his true nature as an eco-fascist and misanthrope. While it’s hardly an original role, it significantly benefits from Armitage’s signature ferocity. The viciousness he brought to his part as Francis Dolarhyde in Hannibal adds a little more punch to lines like “I hope you carve this deep into your heart!”

Between bursts of originality, Space Sweepers frequently appears as a collection of tried-and-tested concepts. The billionaire survivalists in particular might remind some film fans of Neil Blomkamp’s flop Elysium. But the sense of humor sets this apart from other post-apocalyptic sci-fi. The film is never too po-faced to be above the occasional fart joke or pratfall. It also contains shades of Ad Astra, which had its own amusingly mundane presentation of what the colonization of space would genuinely look like, as simply more of the same but elsewhere: the Applebee’s on the moon phenomenon. Aside from this, one of the film’s most striking elements is its casual multiculturalism. Characters from presumably dissolved nations speak to each other in a mix of their native languages, while English mostly appears as the language of power and of the film’s white antagonists.

Three human space sweepers and their android buddy look down with sweaty horror on something offscreen in Space Sweepers. Photo: Netflix

Through that multiculturalism and the droll observations on the daily minutiae of life in the future, Space Sweepers tends to come across as a live-action riff on Shinichiro Watanabe’s famous anime series Cowboy Bebop. Bebop’s DNA is visible throughout Space Sweepers, from its clunky, characterful ships to its scrappy crew trying to make their way in a future gig economy.

But where Bebop married its vignettes into a larger tapestry, the big conspiracies of Space Sweepers feel like they’re in contention with that shaggy-dog atmosphere, and they drag the film beyond its natural endpoint. The combination of SFX and intricate set design are at least impressive to witness, both in their presentation of large-scale space battles and in cinematographer Byeon Bong-seon’s dynamic capturing of opulent future nightclubs, dingy back alleys, and the detritus outside the shelter of Eden’s walled-off paradise. Director Jo is often creative and concise in constructing action sequences, with some fun visualizations, such as Bubs swinging between pursuing spaceships like a space-faring Spider-Man. The work is distinctive and well-directed, even if its most significant strengths lie more in its characters’ charms than any of its sci-fi grandeur.

Space Sweepers manages to rise above the familiarity of its concepts, bolstered by its cast’s sheer charisma. Its most exciting and moving moments are found in the back-and-forth between its ragtag cast of characters and the minor details of its near-future world. Imagining space as an extension of earthly capitalism certainly isn’t new, but at least Space Sweepers’ cast has the collective charm to make the material feel like fresh, worthwhile viewing among the increasing detritus of streaming content.

Space Sweepers is now streaming on Netflix.