THE WANDERING EARTH – Directed by Frant Gwo – SPOILERS
This is the story of astronaut Liu Peiqiang (Jing Wu), his father-in-law Han Zi’ang (Man-Tat Ng), his son Liu Qi (Chuxiao Qu), and his adopted daughter Han Duoduo (Jin Mai Jaho), and how, between the four of them, they save the planet from disaster. Liu is in command of the space station piloting the planet Earth on its new course out of the solar system. On Chinese New Year, he is about to end his 17 year tour of duty on the station and return to his family on Earth. On the same day, his son, possibly in celebration of the New Year, steals his grandfather’s identification and takes his sister on an excursion to Earth’s surface.
The main activity on the surface, where the temperature has fallen to -84 C, is hauling fuel from the mountains to the engines propelling the planet through the void, and grandpa is a truck driver. Liu Qi and Han are quickly apprehended and jailed. Grandpa bails them out by bribing an official (one gets the impression that this is standard practice), and just about then, the Earth encounters the Jovian gravitational field where it is supposed to begin its slingshot maneuver.
Violent earthquakes (why were these unexpected?) begin and several of the propulsion engines fail, putting Earth on course to crash into Jupiter. Liu Qi and Han, with the help of others they encounter on the way, restart the Hangzhou engine and devise a plan to prevent the planetary collision.
The success of their plan (it turns out) is dependent on their father, the Space Station Commander. A contingency plan exists called Project Helios that involves preserving the crew of the Space Station, 300,000 frozen embryos, 100,000 seeds of basic crops, and digital libraries of all civilizations, should a disaster befall the Wandering Earth. Liu is faced with the choice of ensuring the survival of either Project Helios or of planet Earth. (He cannot have it both ways.) Liu’s reaction to this situation makes a strong political statement.
There is a Russian cosmonaut on the space station (played by Arkadiy Sharogradskiy) and he is primarily used as comedy relief, a lot like Chekov was on Star Trek. It seems that Americans and Chinese share a similar view of the Russian psyche.
Would the Space Station commander’s tour of duty logically be set to end during the Chinese New Year celebration, and at the same time that the Earth is scheduled to encounter the planet Jupiter? Seems like bad planning. He’s had the job for 17 years. You’d think he could stay another month.
The film is two hours and five minutes long, and it is so fast-paced that one wishes it was longer. Between driving trucks through hazardous, icy terrain during earthquakes, and climbing through the remains of a deteriorating abandoned skyscraper, the accidental heroes get the viewer completely caught up in their struggle to survive and to rescue the planet.
The most memorable scene has to be when Han goes on the global broadcast network to make an impassioned appeal for help in the face of nearly insurmountable odds. She begins her plea this way: “Hello, people from every rescue unit. My name is Han Duoduuo. I’m a junior high school student. Our rescue unit is executing its final mission. Right now, I’m extremely terrified. My legs are trembling. Everybody is doing their best, but there’s nothing I can do to help! Yesterday, my teacher asked us: ‘What is hope?’ In the past, I never, never believed in hope. But now I do. I believe that in our time, hope is precious, like a diamond. Hope is the only way to guide us home.”
Some five billion years from now, the sun will, as part of its natural evolution, begin to expand, eventually reaching a radius slightly greater than Earth’s orbit. But what if it happened sooner than that? What if we knew it would happen in 100 years? THE WANDERING EARTH, a film based on the 2013 science fiction novel by Hugo Award-winning author Liu Cixin, proposes one possible response to this. (He won the Hugo for another novel, “The Three Body Problem“.) Cixin’s idea is to attach rocket motors to the planet, construct underground cities for the population, and move the Earth to a friendlier location. The chosen destination is the Alpha Centauri star system.
The Earth’s rotation had to be dealt with first, and they decided to stop it. Rocket engines for this purpose were placed around the world at the equator. As all of the drive thrusters are in the northern hemisphere, it is clear (though it is never mentioned) that the earth was flipped on its side as well, so that the drive engines would point in the right direction. That means the northern hemisphere of the traveling earth is in perpetual daylight, and the southern hemisphere is in perpetual night. (We are told that an underground city was built under each of the giant propulsion engines. There are none of those engines in the southern hemisphere. What happened to the people there?)
The moon is shown during the building of the navigational platform, but somehow it disappeared after that. No one tells us how.
The rocket engines in the film use something called “heavy fusion technology”, which somehow enables them to use ordinary rocks as fuel. It must also enable them to have an exhaust velocity greater than the escape velocity of the Earth. The idea is for the rockets to speed up Earth enough to get it to Jupiter’s orbit, and then use the Jovian gravity well for a slingshot effect to increase Earth’s speed even more. (In the book, all this works fine. In an effort to be grandly cinematic, the movie has a crisis occur at Jupiter, and some scientifically implausible things are made to happen.)
Taking the whole planet with you to another star is really overpacking for the trip. Given the technology to build these earth-moving rocket engines and the ability to put people in stasis, why not build ships instead? Instead of building ten thousand underground cities, build ten thousand ships and attach one drive engine to each. (In the novel, the US proposed the building of ships, but only the wealthy were to be allowed on board. The rest of the world, including China, rebelled against this idea, and decided to move the entire planet instead, but the bad idea was not the building of ships. The bad idea was making them available only to the wealthy.)
THE WANDERING EARTH can be streamed on Netflix.
Jing Wu (Liu Peiqiang) won a 2016 Huading Award for Best New Director for a Motion Picture for Zahn lang (WOLF WARRIOR). He won a 2018 Huading award for Best Director for the sequel, WOLF WARRIOR 2. Wu will also appear in Daniel Lee’s film CLIMBERS (aka Qomolangma) which is about a real-life expedition of Chinese mountain climbers who were the first to successfully climb Mount Everest’s North Ridge in 1960. The trio famously left a small statue of Chairman Mao at the summit before heading back down to rescue their fourth team member who was unable to complete the climb. CLIMBERS will be released in China on 30 September.
Guangjie Li (Wang Lei) is Police Officer Han Xiaosong (Wang Kanghao’s partner) in the crime thriller SAVAGE (aka Xue bao), which stars Chang Chen as Wang Kanghao, a policeman trapped by weather conditions at the top of Mt. Baekdu on the border between China and North Korea as he waits to be transferred to a less inhospitable place. After his friend Han is killed by a ruthless group of thieves, Wang becomes obsessed with exacting revenge. SAVAGE had its world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea, where it won the award for Best Film, and recently began a limited theatrical release in the US. A trailer is available on IMDB.