Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

One of China’s all-time blockbuster bonanzas is hiding in plain sight on Netflix

Illustration for article titled One of China’s all-time blockbuster bonanzas is hiding in plain sight on Netflix
Screenshot: The Wandering Earth

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: movies in space copy. This week: With Voyagers now in theaters and Stowaway on Netflix next week, we’re looking to the stars for five days of space movies.


The Wandering Earth (2019)

“You might say that each and every one of us is a crew member, here on Spaceship Earth.” So declares the astrophysicist played by David Hyde Pierce in Wet Hot American Summer, a man of science succinctly capturing both the basic premise and deeper appeal of The Wandering Earth, which offers a more current take on narrowly avoided planetary catastrophe. Frant Gwo’s 2019 mega-blockbuster, the fourth-highest-grossing in China’s history (which is to say, the fourth-highest-grossing film not in the English language, anywhere, ever), pushes the spaceship metaphor to a literal conclusion, with rocket boosters installed along the equator to set our little blue marble on a journey through the cosmos. Our sun’s fixing to go red giant and die, so we need to skedaddle on over to the Alpha Centauri system if humanity wants to see the next century, the operative words in this mission being “our” and “we.”

A crisis requiring every person on Earth to pool wits and resources lends itself well to the mainland mainstream’s present preoccupations with technological advancement and collective responsibility. In true communistic fashion, the species comes together to form a single United Earth Government and take drastic action for the sake of the many, though this Hail Mary for survival places us on a collision course with Jupiter’s gravitational pull. The all-in last-ditch effort to avert oblivion reinforces the prevailing spirit of globalism in a film that emphasizes harmonious cooperation over individual heroics. In a departure from Hollywood’s favored space cowboy narrative, Gwo cross-cuts through a wide ensemble splitting the difference between Eisenstein and Irwin Allen, unique yet disposable characters defined more by their shared purpose than their own relationship to it. The unexpectedly devastating (if overlong) third act affirms the insignificance of these people relative to their cause, making bold choices of finality uncommon in today’s franchise-addicted market.

They populate a dystopia realized with specificity and personality, its digitally embellished production design more richly textured than pure computer-generated environments. Though the color palette has been drearified in the manner common among today’s Chinese tentpoles, Gwo borrows all the right stuff from his influences in the West, starting with, well, The Right Stuff and all its zero-hour gallantry. An AI with a mind of its own recalls 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the nerve-wracking scrambles across the surface of a space station ape Gravity, but the artful handling of mumbo jumbo stands as the most valuable contribution from American pop cinema. As in Armageddon, the script includes just enough jargon to sound credible without getting bogged down in incomprehensible nerdery; by the time one of our guys empties a machine gun clip into the sky while screaming, “Screw you, Jupiter!” it’s clear that no one’s taking themselves too seriously.

Even if Stateside audiences are warming up to foreign imports—a post-Parasite-winning-Best Picture paradigm—it’s still the festival sensations from esteemed auteurs that tend to gain traction, while the big-budget spectacles end up relegated to the obscurer hallways of AMC’s multiplexes. Netflix paid what must be a princely sum to gain exclusive license to Gwo’s $700-million monster and then left it to rot in the virtual stacks of their content library, indistinguishable from the lesser Asian sci-fi they’ve released themselves. A closer look reveals this to be a cut above the rest, more thoughtfully conceived and competently mounted than the dinkier apocalypses cluttering the streaming service. Its crowd-pleasing instincts invite English-speakers to wonder, How long until China starts to see the U.S. as their cash cow?

Availability: The Wandering Earth is currently streaming on Netflix.