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story.lead_photo.caption Liu Qi (Chuxiao Qu) is a bitter and rebellious young man called upon to save the world in The Wandering Earth, a Chinese sci-fi blockbuster now streaming on Netflix.

I have a confession to make. I've never seen a Chinese movie before last weekend. In fact, I don't watch many foreign films at all. No particular reason. I just don't see too many advertised to me, and I don't have the interest to go seek them out.

Can France's film industry produce a science-fiction blockbuster like Inception or Edge of Tomorrow? I don't know. Maybe they already have, and I'm not aware of it. Either way, I don't intend to research this too deeply. I have enough movies to watch here in America.

With that said, I saw a few articles on Sunday morning telling me Netflix had just released (with little fanfare) its recently acquired Chinese film The Wandering Earth. This is currently the third highest-grossing film in 2019, and Forbes reported it's China's first big-budget science-fiction blockbuster.

Normally I might have let the film go by the wayside, but this is an outer space adventure, and I'm a sucker for those. The Alien series? Love it. The Martian? Enjoyed every minute. Star Wars, Interstellar, the Riddick trilogy, Serenity, I can't get enough of a solid space adventure. So, as I ate a steak and rice burrito, I loaded up the two-hour Wandering Earth.

Of course, I don't speak Mandarin, so my understanding of the story relied on English subtitles. That's a turn-off for some who don't want to read during a movie. But as someone who consumes a fair amount of Japanese animation with English subtitles, this wasn't a system shock to me.

I'll just go ahead and get my biggest struggle with the film out of the way. It was the names. The main characters are named Liu Qi, Liu Peiqiang and Han Duoduo. And I'll be honest. I didn't remember any of them throughout the story. My brain just isn't used to processing those names. You know whose name I did remember? A Chinese/Aussie national named Tim, a slight mercy for my mind.

But that was my problem, not the movie's. I still enjoyed watching all these characters trying to save the Earth. And I cried when one of them made the ultimate sacrifice. It seems emotions carry across language barriers just fine for me.

The story admittedly seems just a little silly upon first hearing it. The sun is expanding and eating up every planet in our galaxy. So world governments unify and pool resources to build hundreds of giant rockets along the equator and around the world. These rockets push the planet out of the sun's reach, leaving our galaxy and finding a new home over the span of 2,500 years. I know. That sounds like some Jules Verne space travel, but the visuals really help.

A $50 million budget did this blockbuster some good. As the Earth moves away from the sun, our planet freezes over, and mankind moves to giant underground cities. The story follows a brother and sister who travel to the surface to see the outside world for the Chinese New Year. But this happens right as Earth is passing by Jupiter, and the giant planet's gravity shuts down a number of rockets, setting the planets on a collision course.

In a science-fiction movie, visuals are half of the tale. The audience is being sold an unbelievable story. They need spectacular visuals to convince them what they're seeing is possible. If Luke and Vader are fighting with laser swords, those weapons need to flash, crackle, and hiss when they strike. If cars fly and a detective is hunting artificial humans in future L.A., I'd best have a lot of neon lights and rain, dangit. Of course, Blade Runner comes with the added benefit of a fantastic soundtrack on top of prodigious effects.

It's here the China Film Group Limited did its production justice. From Jupiter sucking up Earth's atmosphere, and unpredictable earthquakes, to giant freighters transporting raw materials across the frozen surface, it all looks amazing. Is pushing Earth through space with rockets silly? Perhaps. Did it look silly in The Wandering Earth? Not in the slightest.

So the characters have heart, the effects are spectacular, and I'm sold on the story. What else does the movie need to be a successful science-fiction summer blockbuster? Breakneck action sequences that fuel more tension than breaking up with your high school girlfriend at prom.

That's exactly what the movie gave me. Giant trucks racing across a frozen surface trying to dodge falling rocks and skyscrapers during an earthquake? Check. Insane space walks as astronauts try to get from one part of a giant space station to the other? Check. World-ending events that dash our hopes the planet will survive? Check. It's two hours of on-the-edge-of-your-seat action.

In a nutshell, I'd call this movie China's equivalent of Armageddon. You remember the 1990s flick about an asteroid coming to destroy Earth? It was Michael Bay's last good movie. And it crushed its competition Deep Impact to the point you probably don't even remember it.

My wife hated Armageddon because it stressed her out to no end. Everything keeps going wrong as these oil drillers turned astronauts try to drill into the asteroid, plant a nuke, and fly away to safety. Shuttles crash, drills explode, people die. She barely made it through the movie. That's pretty much how Wandering Earth goes. Things just keep going wrong until your hope for the future smashed up into little bite-sized pieces. And I loved it.

The only thing that might not transfer well across languages is the humor. And that might just be a culture thing. Certain scenes (mostly with Tim) are just wacky over-the-top antics ranging from "I don't want to die!" to throwing up into one's thermal suit helmet. Humor doesn't make up much of the film, thankfully, because it was kind of hit-or-miss for me.

Come for the visuals and stay for the breakneck action. If you've got a Netflix subscription and love science-fiction blockbusters, I'd encourage you to give The Wandering Earth a try. In the end, I didn't feel like I was watching a Chinese movie. I felt like I was watching any other science-fiction film whether it was Godzilla or Alita: Battle Angel. And that shows the filmmakers did something right.

MovieStyle on 05/17/2019

Print Headline: China makes pretty decent blockbuster


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