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Wandering Eye: What China’s Biggest Sci-Fi Movie Yet Could Mean for Hollywood

After a record-breaking opening week, ‘The Wandering Earth’ could jump-start a wave of domestic blockbusters in the world’s second-largest market. Does that change the calculus for Western studios?

United Entertainment Partners/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Picture your favorite stirring scene of self-sacrifice from a science-fiction film. Harry detonating the bomb that destroys the killer asteroid in Armageddon. The crew of Messiah ramming into a comet fragment in Deep Impact. Spock succumbing to radiation in The Wrath of Khan. Russell’s kamikaze run in Independence Day. The music swells, the hero has a last tender moment, and disaster is averted, although survival comes at a terrible cost.

Imagine that moment of bittersweet salvation coming not at the climax of the movie, but roughly halfway through. Now imagine that first honorable act setting up several more of a similar nature, each accompanied by well-chosen last words, flashbacks to meaningful memories, and montages of grieving-but-grateful survivors. If you’d rather not just imagine this crescendo of selflessness, you can watch The Wandering Earth, an epic that opened in 22 U.S. cities last Friday after making a massive box office debut in China. A big-budget sci-fi spectacle produced without Hollywood’s help, The Wandering Earth is a milestone in Chinese moviemaking and a popular, precedent-setting success, although its frenetic narrative tries a little too hard to make up for lost time by cramming many movies into one.

Coproduced by the Beijing Jingxi Culture & Tourism Company and the state-owned China Film Group Corporation and directed by Guo Fan, The Wandering Earth is another big moneymaker that features martial artist and actor Wu Jing in a leading role. Jing, who also invested in the movie, previously wrote, directed, and starred in 2017 action film Wolf Warrior 2, which grossed more than $850 million in China, the most any movie has ever made in one market except for Star Wars: The Force Awakens in North America. The Wandering Earth is adapted from a 2000 short story by Chinese sci-fi luminary Cixin Liu, who also authored The Three-Body Problem, the first book by an author from Asia to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel. Much of the movie was filmed at the Oriental Movie Metropolis, an $8 billion studio built by real estate and entertainment conglomerate (and former majority owner of AMC Theaters) Dalian Wanda that became the world’s largest film-production facility when it opened last April. The Wandering Earth reportedly cost nearly $50 million to make, a large amount for its market, and roughly 7,000 workers took part in the production. (The most expensive Chinese-made movie, 2018 fantasy flop Asura, ran up a production budget of roughly $112 million; Wolf Warrior 2 cost only $30 million.)

The movie, which opened on the February 5 Lunar New Year holiday and is screening in IMAX and 3D, grossed a record-breaking $349 million in its first week of release, making more money each day as it spread to more screens. According to Chinese box office analyst Gavin Feng, the film upped its total to $419.6 million through Wednesday, its ninth day in theaters. “It is a beast in the box office and probably will be the second film to hit $600M in China,” Feng says via email.

The Wandering Earth borrows its bones from Liu’s story, with predictable embellishments; Western moviemakers aren’t the only ones willing to spice up their source material. Faced with the prospect of being swallowed by an unexpectedly expanding sun, humanity has banded together to move the Earth out of the solar system by constructing thousands of massive, ground-based rockets, or “Earth Engines,” to propel the whole planet. As the surviving population shelters in subterranean cities to escape the lethally cold and gravitationally scoured surface, the United Earth Government prepares for a flyby of Jupiter that will launch the Earth on the longest leg of a 2,500-year, interstellar journey intended to park the planet in orbit around the nearest non-threatening star, Proxima Centauri.

In the original story, Liu devotes all of two paragraphs to the notion that this complex maneuver might not proceed smoothly. “It was impossible for anyone to believe that our tiny Earth could escape the gravitational pull of that enormous monster,” Liu writes, as translated by Holger Nahm. “For us, it was not even imaginable that Earth could become Jupiter’s satellite; we would certainly plummet straight into the inferno concealed beneath that boundless ocean of clouds!” The suspense lasts only for the brief space between sentences. “But the navigator’s calculations were exact,” Liu continues. “That bewildering, dim red heaven slowly began to move.”

A flawless flyby wouldn’t make for much of a movie, so the adaptation revises this stage of the story. In the film, Jupiter’s gravity shuts down thousands of the thrusters, initiating a last-ditch, planetwide effort to reignite the rockets by delivering circular “lighter cores” to each site before Earth becomes one with the gas giant. Rather than try to tell its story on a planetwide scale, the movie manufactures a family of misfits that becomes enmeshed in one modest mission among many—which, to the audience’s scant surprise, soon reveals itself as central to determining the fate of all life on Earth. Liu, a hard sci-fi specialist, is largely concerned with the mechanics of moving a planet, so his story doesn’t supply much grist for the emotional mill. The film version inserts a fraught father-son relationship; an adopted, spunky sister; and a feisty grandfather who’s cleared to operate the heavy-duty transporters that convey the characters across the icy surface, the last of whom is much more endearing than the senile grandfather in the short story, who makes an early exit after exposing himself to scalding acid rain.

Because the planet is being pulled apart, there’s no such thing as a stable surface in The Wandering Earth. Every environment is on the verge of splintering, collapsing, or exploding, and the movie’s two-hour running time unspools in a string of CGI set pieces that blend the beauty of the artificial Earth Engines with the majesty and scale of space. Aside from a few unnatural-looking scenes involving vehicles, the effects look like they could come from the latest tentpole title by Ridley Scott, James Cameron, or Christopher Nolan. Not since most of the crew of the Icarus II offed itself in Sunshine has a single film featured so many characters laying down their lives so that the whole human race may live. Few sci-fi movies have ever seemed to want to be a blockbuster this bad. And that’s understandable, because The Wandering Earth had the hopes of a genre riding on its financial fate.

“Sci-fi as a genre in Chinese literature has taken off in the past few years, but it is basically nonexistent on Chinese screens,” China Film Insider Chinese film industry analyst Jonathan Papish says via direct message. “Western sci-fi films are hit and miss—recent successes would be Ready Player One, Bumblebee, [and] The Martian. Flops include Star Wars (all films), Passengers, and Arrival. The Wandering Earth is essentially the first big-budget Chinese sci-fi, so there aren’t really any comparisons; its overwhelming success definitely bodes well for future homemade sci-fi films.”

Because it came along so late—in part because of Chinese moviemakers’ concerns about matching their Western counterparts’ visual effects—The Wandering Earth has a voluminous library to learn from, and it doesn’t have strong scruples about borrowing. Aspects of innumerable sci-fi touchstones seep into the movie’s two-hour running time: Interstellar’s spacefaring father who fails to return at the appointed time, The Martian’s traversing and sciencing the shit out of hostile surroundings, Gravity’s breathtaking debris-dodging, The Day After Tomorrow’s disaster tourism, The Core’s desperate, implausible quest to deliver a planet-saving payload, 2001’s menacing AI adversary. “It’s taking a page out of Hollywood’s book in order to create something that really resonates more at home,” says one Western industry analyst who’s familiar with the Chinese movie market.

Melding so many movies leads to occasional incoherence, and it doesn’t leave a lot of time for rich character development. Nor does the seventh dramatic death scene have the same emotional impact as the first or second. Because it seems to be borrowing from so many sources, The Wandering Earth may strike Western audiences as derivative, and the English subtitles, which are riddled with misspellings, grammar mistakes, and awkward constructions, sometimes step on the jokes or reduce dialogue to incoherence. (Prepare yourself to see people repeatedly referred to as “personnels.”)

“Unfortunately, Chinese production companies don’t value quality translations even if the film has plans for international markets,” Papish says. “They will often choose the cheapest translation method they can find, either by outsourcing to bulk Chinese translation companies or by hiring a ‘bilingual’ production assistant; I’ve even seen some that have gone through machine translation.”

Papish warns that “poor translations can turn off potential Western moviegoers.” Of course, The Wandering Earth wasn’t made with Western moviegoers primarily in mind, and it’s clearly resonating with viewers on its own turf. In addition to racking up the renminbi, the movie owns a solid 7.9 average rating on the well-trafficked Chinese social networking service Douban. It doesn’t hurt that the movie follows a patriotic trajectory in which Chinese ingenuity saves the species, although it does acknowledge the virtues of international collaboration and eschew the jingoism that characterized Wolf Warrior 2 and 2018’s Operation Red Sea.

“From the point of view of movie fans and critics, it is not seen as a masterpiece, because we still can see the gap between Chinese sci-fi and Hollywood sci-fi,” Feng says. “But The Wandering Earth finally delivered something [of quality], including script, visual effects, [and] production design, to a general audience. It makes [the] Chinese audience believe that Chinese film studios do have the ability to make good sci-fi movies.”

Reached via email, Chen Qiufan, a Chinese science-fiction writer and the author of the forthcoming novel Waste Tide, quotes part of a piece he produced about The Wandering Earth for the Chinese culture site Sixth Tone. “I hope The Wandering Earth finally signals the global arrival of truly ‘Chinese’ sci-fi,” he wrote. “Indeed, in my view, director Guo Fan’s greatest achievement lies in how he solved a problem that has plagued Chinese science-fiction movies for years: how to naturally integrate Chinese culture and sentiments into a genre that has been dominated by the West for over a century.” The film takes place in the ravaged remnant of China and features an all-Chinese cast and a pro-China message, but aside from the obvious, Quifan points to the film’s emphasis on preserving and returning to a physical homeland—hence, escaping with the planet rather than fleeing from it—as emblematic of Chinese sci-fi. Guo has identified the film’s emphases on color and more rugged, less futuristic technology as other factors that help set it apart from Western entries in the genre.

According to Quifan, who watched the premiere with Liu, Liu responded to seeing the film by saying, “I believe the journey of Chinese science-fiction movie starts from now,” echoing Guo’s comment about 2019 being “year zero” for Chinese sci-fi blockbusters. Crazy Alien, a sci-fi/fantasy film that opened on the same day as The Wandering Earth, initially outdrawing it and driving China’s biggest box office day ever, was also adapted from a work by Liu, who has helped revitalize a genre that was once suppressed by the Communist Party but now seems aligned with the country’s future-oriented outlook. A domestic movie adaptation of Liu’s Three-Body trilogy has encountered lengthy production delays, leading Amazon to express interest in developing the IP as a TV series.

According to Feng, 2018 was a strong year for the Chinese box office, which grossed $8.9 billion, but while domestic film revenues rose 29 percent relative to 2017, foreign films saw their Chinese take tail off by 13 percent. Feng says The Wandering Earth’s success could affect how and when Western films—some of which are already tailored to Chinese audiences—are released, because while many Western sci-fi films fare well in China, “none of them can hit the level that The Wandering Earth is going to do. I don’t think it proves Hollywood sci-fi is going to be abandoned from now on in China, but it means that local films always have huge advantages [at home], especially when Chinese studios can make more good sci-fi movies.” He cautions, though, that the success of Chinese-made movies So Young (2013) and Mojin: The Lost Legend (2015) inspired a rash of low-quality, copycat youth films and tomb-raiding films, respectively, that turned audiences against those genres, and the pattern could repeat itself for sci-fi. Additional Chinese-produced sci-fi films, including Pathfinder and Shanghai Fortress, are scheduled for release later this year.

The Western industry analyst cautions against making too much of one film’s earnings, citing The Wandering Earth’s holiday release, lack of competition from major Hollywood films, well-coordinated media blitz, and recognizable star as ingredients in its extraordinary revenue. “The fact of the matter is that China needs Hollywood as much as Hollywood needs China,” the analyst says, noting that China is expected to surpass North America as the world’s largest movie market in the next year or two and that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” The quality and success of The Wandering Earth, the analyst says, “is a good sign in a positive direction, but I don’t see all of a sudden them having 10 or 12 or 15 major blockbusters every year. The industry is still growing, and they’re still learning.”

At a time when the late-developing Chinese space program is quickly catching up with the world’s traditional space-race leaders, The Wandering Earth represents corresponding progress on the screen. Last month, the Chinese National Space Administration landed a spacecraft on the moon. Although the U.S. and Russia executed soft landings on the moon long before China, China is the first country to touch down on the dark side of the satellite. The Chinese space program didn’t visit extraterrestrial territory first, but it did do it differently. Now it’s the studios’ turn to do the same for science fiction.