There’s a new Chinese movie out – Wandering Earth. Chinese people are pretty excited about it. It made a bajillion RMB during Spring Festival. It’s currently the second-highest rated film on Douban. It’s been written about extensively by Western media, which unanimously crowned it “China’s first sci-fi blockbuster”. It accomplished the rare feat of uniting both Western film critics and Chinese government officials in praise. Intrigued, I went to see it. I did find something very interesting in it, but not what you might expect.
The film’s set-up goes something like this. Sometime in the not-too-distant future, Earth is falling apart. This is due to the sun, which is dying. In fact, things have gotten so bad, humanity has migrated to underground cities. You now need a space suit to go to the surface. A global government has mobilized and built 20,000 rocket thrusters on the surface of the planet, turning Earth in effect into a giant spaceship. The idea is to navigate our way to another solar system, a trip which will take a thousand generations. Unfortunately, around Jupiter, something goes wrong, Earth is sucked into Jupiter’s gravitational pull and it’s going to slam into it in 36 hours. Unless someone saves the day. Cue unlikely-but-ultimately-heroic effort.
Doesn’t sound terribly original, so why are people so excited about it?
First there are the special effects. That’s usually the first thing Chinese people say about the film. They’re pretty good, much better than clunky 3D disappointment of The Monkey King (both the 2014 original and the 2016 sequel) which was China’s last big attempt at CGI verisimilitude (Journey to the West, btw, is just screaming for proper CGI glory). Simon Abrams, writing on RogerEbert.com, wrote that the film “looks better than most American special-effects spectaculars.” So, yes, China officially has a seat at the controls of the reality studio, fully capable of convincing your average filmgoer that the earth is about to explode, ready to write the future into existence.
Then there’s the made-in-China angle. The actors are Chinese. The director is Chinese. 75% of special effects were done in China. The story came from a Chinese writer. This isn’t just another sci-fi blockbuster, it’s a made-in-China sci-fi blockbuster. Seen from this angle, it’s not too different from Huawei taking market share from Apple or Wechat one-upping Facebook. Against the backdrop of Trade War, this is a real consideration. Blockbusters, up to now, meant RMB flowing into Hollywood pockets. Wandering Earth reverses the flow of silver.
There’s also a not-small-amount of national pride at work. This gets into post-colonial theory, but in essence, it’s the oppressed mastering the master’s codes. Sci-fi is seen as a particularly Western genre and China making a successful sci-fi movie represents another milestone along its journey from exploitation to empowerment. Out of all the arguments in favour of Wandering Earth, this one seems least worthy of excitement. If we are going to view China’s cinematic production as a grocery checklist, then China needs more stoner comedies and Terence Malick homages. Wake me up when Ning Hao turns out a credible version of Dude, Where’s My Car or Lou Ye does the Chinese Tree of Life. Just saying.
The unique way in which Wandering Earth approaches the sci-fi disaster genre also resonated with Chinese viewers. Chinese media delighted in pointing out the way politics is presented in Wandering Earth, lauding the “particularly Chinese vision of collective decision-making” when facing cataclysm. The film’s United Earth Government, after some sinister moments, turns out to be pretty reasonable. And then when the planet-wide call for help is issued, people from all nations show up to lend a hand. How nice! The Chinese media said it shows how “we are all in this together”, a clear poke at a certain country out there which will remain nameless.
And even though we are assured by China’s political pundits that, officially, Wandering Earth echoes with Xi Jinping Thought, viewers quietly point to film’s lack of overt CCP presence. The only moment which nods to the CCP is when the narrator revists the lottery which determined who went underground and who didn’t. In any event, it must have been a relief to local audiences that the film de-emphasized the political to the benefit of the ragtag band of unlikely heroes.
Chinese viewers also appreciated the numerous quotidian details of Chinese life which manage to make their way into the cataclysmic future. The mildly schoolmarm-y voice which reminds the driver of the truck to “请注意安全” (“please pay attention to safety”) will be instantly recognizable even to expats. In the end, Chinese viewers understood that Wandering Earth represents a step forward in the soft power proxy wars, something China hasn’t been too good at since, maybe, the Ming Dynasty. I’m not convinced Wandering Earth is anything more an aberration there, but I’ll leave that for another column.
But all that still leaves unaddressed the central paradox of the film – if the earth is so fucked, why would you want to bring it along? Why not abandon it and take your chances on a fleet of spacecraft? This, in fact, was said to be the reaction of a major producer when the director shopped the script in Hollywood, and it produced to some torturous rationalizing in the Chinese press. Here’s how sci-fi writer Chen Qiufan put it in SixthTone:
Since ancient times, the West has been an oceanic civilization, constantly going out to sea, and looking up at the stars, [While] for thousands of years, the Chinese people have faced the earth, with the sky behind them. They have a deep affection for the land, and can’t let even an inch go. They fight with their lives for the land….In Chinese culture, one’s birthplace is crucial: Its significance may even outweigh family connections. So, in The Wandering Earth, when the solar system is about to be destroyed, humans naturally choose to take their home with them on their quest for salvation.
Uh not really. This is pure 中国大陆主意 and conveniently leaves out the millions of Chinese people who, over the course of centuries, did leave their homes, sailing away to settle in every corner of the world. My personal experience of 20 years in China tells me that Chinese folks pay plenty of lip service to 老家 but it’s family that counts in the end. And this leads me to my real point: it is the portrayal of family that makes Wandering Earth truly interesting.
To put this in perspective, let me bring in Armageddon, Michael Bay’s 1998 asteroid-sized disaster movie, to which Wandering Earth is often compared. You’ll no doubt recall that in Armageddon the asteroid was foiled by an unlikely-but-ultimately-heroic-effort of a ragtag crew of oil drillers led by Bruce Willis. But you might not remember that when we first meet Bruce Willis, he is trying to shoot Ben Affleck whom he has just discovered bedding his daughter.
Armageddon (and most mainstream Hollywood films for that matter) derive true dramatic power from the realm of Freudian symbolism. The film’s central concern is not the asteroid bearing down on Earth, but the fact that Bruce Willis’ daughter (played by Liv Tyler) has reached sexual maturity and dad is having a hard time coping. If the film starts with disturbed sexual tensions and distorted family relationships, it ends with Willis sacrificing himself for his daughter and her lover (even though we trick ourselves into believing it’s for the sake of humanity). The film’s final scene is a joyous wedding where the traditional family dynamic is reconstituted. That’s classic Hollywood.
Things are quite different for Liu Qi, the twentysomething hero of Wandering Earth. Raised by his grandfather, he never really knew his father, who has worked as an astronaut on a spaceship for the last 17 years. The film doesn’t even afford him the luxury of a girlfriend. Throughout the film, the only eligible female around is Duoduo, who is presented as his “sister”. But she’s not a sister by blood; she was adopted by Liu Qi’s grandfather. It’s a little complicated, but not atypical for Chinese families where cousins are often referred to as “sisters” or “brothers”. The effect, though, is to rob Liu Qi of his sexual potency.
Armageddon meanwhile is all about sexual potency. It’s no coincidence that the whole movie revolves around drilling the earth and hitting pay dirt. The drill rig and the gushing oil are as perfect a phallic symbol as you’ll ever get. Bruce Willis eventually comes to terms with the fact that his daughter’s lover is a better driller than he is – wink wink. It’s a somewhat crude observation, but Hollywood doesn’t earn its bread on subtleties.
It is interesting to note that in both Wandering Earth and Armageddon, the mother figure is completely absent. In Armageddon she walked out years ago, having had enough of the oil driller life. In Wandering Earth, mom died early of an unnamed illness. Neither commands more than 20 seconds of screen time. Coincidence? I don’t think so. The facile conjecture is that “mom” is sublimated into the much larger concept of “Earth”, “Earth” being threatened and needing protection. Or, more sinisterly, perhaps mom is the asteroid hurtling toward Earth destined to blow apart the nascent love affair or Jupiter inexorably sucking her child back to her breast? I could go either way on that one.
Regardless of how you see it, disaster movies, no matter how large they are writ, are almost always about family bonds and their violent transformation. If Armageddon is about a father passing the sword to his son-in-law, then what about Wandering Earth? Liu Qi has been abandoned by both his parents – mom dead, dad on a 17-year business trip. He loses grandpa a third of the way through the film. Deprived of (real) family, blocked sexually by the ambiguous presence of his adopted sister, Liu Qi is propelled forward by the logic of pure duty. In fact, we see in the end that it’s not the earth that is wandering, it’s Liu Qi and, by extension, this generation of young Chinese men. Just wandering.
At the end of the film, triumphant as he may be, Liu Qi is alone. In the final sequence, the camera tracking behind him, we see him walking alone through the crowds. He walks past a girl giving him the eye without any discernible reaction. He passes among soldiers in formation without breaking stride. Liu Qi may be a hero, but he seems none too happy about it.