“Hope is a diamond, the only direction that will lead us home.” Home is a relative concept in these words drilled into the schoolchildren in the underground shelter beneath the Beijing City 3 engine complex, the select many who survived the narrowly avoided end of the world to participate in the Wandering Earth project.
Global warming, extinction levels up, sea levels down; it was all a prelude to the growing instability in the Sun, expected to expand into a red giant and swallow the Earth within a hundred years and the rest of the solar system within three hundred; the only way to survive was the largest global engineering project ever conceived.
A journey lasting two and a half thousand years, the Wandering Earth is driven by 10,000 engines across the surface of the planet and a ring of torque engines whose first purpose was to stop the spin of the Earth, causing tsunamis and flooding, drowning those of the population were not chosen by skill or lottery for the underground shelters.
Now, seventeen years into the voyage, the Earth is a frozen wasteland guided by the Navigation Station which precedes it as it approaches the planet Jupiter for the gravitational slingshot which will accelerate it out of the solar system on the trip across generations and four light years to the Alpha Centauri system.
Based on the novel by Liu Cixin and directed by Frant Gwo, in its native China The Wandering Earth (流浪地球) grossed far over half a billon dollars, the third largest grossing film so far of 2019 behind Captain Marvel and Endgame despite never having received international distribution, a situation now remedied by co-financiers Netflix.
Like the grand endeavour, the film adaptation is big budget and full of huge idea but quickly runs into trouble as it veers course from the bold concept into an endless cycle of needless crises and resolutions of low ambition action cinema clichés, largely mediated through a cast of whiny twenty-somethings.
The immediate disaster precipitated by an unexplained “gravity spike” from Jupiter, on the Navigation Station Taikonaut Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing) attempts to override the pre-emptive ruling that the Earth cannot be saved made by the artificial intelligence MOSS, initially a passive but obstructive Gerty clone who later morphs into full HAL megalomania.
Meanwhile on the surface of the Earth his resentful son and tearful adopted daughter Liu Qi and Han Duoduo (Qu Chuxiao and Zhao Jinmai) and their insufferable comedy relief friend Tim (Mike Sui) must attempt to reactivate the damaged Beijing City 3 engine, one of thousands across the planet which have failed following the incident.
Existing in a subsistence society where luxury food items are a valuable commodity on the black market and coffins are cardboard, beyond these details there is no examination of the wider social implications of the guilt and burden of a population who survived when others died who are now part of a generational voyage to an unknown destination they will never see.
The sets, design and the majority of the effects of The Wandering Earth are magnificent, the underground city, the frozen surface of the Earth with all the artifacts of history embedded in the ice, while the passage through the solar system and the turbulent atmosphere of Jupiter are powerful and evocative images of power, the shallow human drama set against these images is a flickering candle held against the brightness of the dimming sun.