Friday, March 8, 2019

The Wandering Earth Looks Pretty But Its Characters Are Painfully Dull

Over the course of the 2010s, the already expansive Chinese film industry has grown substantially, particularly in terms of box office receipts. Monster Hunt, The Mermaid, Wolf Warrior II, all of these Chinese blockbusters have amassed the type of gargantuan box office sums normally seen only by the North American grosses of James Cameron and Star Wars movies. The newest Chinese blockbuster to procure this level of massive box office success is The Wandering Earth, which currently stands as the biggest movie of 2019 at the worldwide box office. A mash-up of Mortal Engines, The Day After Tomorrow and 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Wandering Earth is far more tedious than any combination of those three films should ever be.

The Earth's very existence has been threatened by the gradually expanding size of our Sun. In order to save humanity, every country on Earth unites to build these engines into the planet that can power Earth to actually move across the cosmos to a new home in another star system. Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing) is tasked with helping to run a satellite that will prove crucial in helping Earth make to its new home. In order to do this, he must leave his son, Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao), for sixteen years, leaving Liu Qi to grow up in an underground city resentful of his absent father. Both father and son eventually face individual storylines relating to them trying to stop Earth from colliding into Jupiter, with Liu Qi eventually trekking across Earth's frozen surface to try and save the day.

The Wandering Earth works best as a visual exercise first and foremost, no question. All the money that went into this features budget (which apparently was about $50 million in U.S. currency) is certainly on the screen, between the convincing-looking sequences involving Liu Peiqiang and a fellow Russian astronaut floating around in space to the large-scale disaster sequences set on Earth. All of these elements are brought to life through impressive VFX while cinematographer Michael Liu gets some mighty pretty shots that take advantage of the unique cosmic setting of the story. Most notably, the Earth's sky in the third act, which has been heavily altered in appearance by how close the planet is now to Jupiter, is stunning to look at and makes for a visually riveting backdrop for the characters.

There's also a flashback scene featuring Liu Qi's grandfather that opens with a gorgeous shot of human beings trapped in a frozen lake permanently captured in poses of despair that looks like something in a renaissance era painting. There's also plenty of practically made sets to bring to life the underground bunkers Earth denizens now call home that are similarly exceptional in visual appearance. The Wandering Earth is a visual treat (I'm sure it looked amazing on an IMAX screen), no two ways about it, but any time it cuts back to the characters and whatever kind of drama they're going through, it becomes much too dull and forgettable. How come a movie with a premise this weird has such stale characters?

Even by the standards of characters you'd see in a Roland Emmerich disaster movie, the majority of the leads in The Wandering Earth are thoroughly uninteresting while the father/son dynamic between Liu Peiqiang and Liu Qi that the story leans heavily on is hard to get emotionally invested in. None of the characters are all that grating at least, which is certainly an improvement over similar big-budget disaster spectacle movies from Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich that tend to be populated by characters who are like the human personification of nails on a chalkboard. But too often The Wandering Earth leans on tedious characters to propel its plot along when its best asset is its gorgeous visual sensibilities. In a rare reversal of what I normally critique big-budget blockbusters for, The Wandering Earth is an example of a movie that should have embraced more spectacle and less of its characters.

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