The Oxymoronic Earth

(A Nowa Fantastyka remix)

Lers of Spoi.

You Have Been Warned.


Either a publicity still or the cover for a Christian rock album.

“The Wandering Earth” is the most successful movie I almost never heard of. It’s China’s second-highest grossing movie ever. Globally it’s the 3rd-highest grossing film so far this year, and the 2nd-highest grossing non-English movie of all time. Yet I blinked and missed its theatrical run here in Toronto; a couple of weeks, a couple of theaters, and it was gone. Pretty shoddy treatment for a movie based on a Cixin Liu story.

Netflix recently slipped it into their lineup with nary a whisper. That’s where I saw it— and after two viewings I can report that “The Wandering Earth” is one of the most derivative movies I’ve ever seen. It’s also unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

I’m still working out how it manages to be both those things at once.

The derivative parts hit you in the face from the opening frame: In terms of sheer epic scale, this movie out-Hollywoods Hollywood. Humanity discovers the sun is about to turn into a red giant and retrofits the entire planet into a vast interstellar spaceship. Ten thousand Everest-sized fusion rockets kick Earth out of orbit and onto course for Alpha Centauri. And all this happens during the opening credits. It’s as if Emmerich and Bruckheimer and Cameron all got into a pissing match to see who could up the stakes fastest.

The characters are also pure Hollywood, stock cut-outs recruited from Central Casting. Plucky young protagonists, check. Obnoxious comic-relief sidekick, check. Wise self-sacrificing father figure, check. No-nonsense soldiers with their eyes on the mission but hearts in the right place, check. All that’s missing is a cute pet dog to run off and force the adults into danger when they try to rescue it.

There’s surprisingly little interpersonal drama. Even other movies which star Nature as Antagonist[1] usually spend some time on the social unrest provoked by imminent catastrophe: the rioting and martial law, the choice of who lives and who dies, the looters and cheaters and altruists who give up their spot so others might live. None of that seems to happen here; those chosen to survive go underground and everyone else apparently just waits outside to die. Nobody rebels, nobody panics (or if they do, it’s not mentioned). Everyone accepts their fate. The conflict we do see is trivial stuff, teenage rebellion or parental scolding designed to get our heroes topside before all the shit goes down.

It’s a heartening, noble view of Human Nature. It’s also exactly the kind of perspective that a totalitarian regime would want to show its citizens. Respect authority. Never question. Do as you’re told, no matter the price. (Time travel stories are illegal in China, did you know that? Can’t have people thinking about alternative realities…) Watching TWE sometimes feels like watching the purest Chinese propaganda— which is strange for a movie in which countries don’t exist any more, in which all of Humanity has coalesced around a World Government to face its existential crisis.

The film does have a refreshingly positive attitude towards science— no trust-your-feelings-trust-the-force, no Scientists Play God and Doom Us All. Science is portrayed here as a good thing, a tool vital to our survival. It’s a nice change from the usual anti-intellectualism permeating the culture these days— but it’s also a damned shame because the science in this movie is absolutely terrible.

Probably no more absurd that a warp drive based on mushrooms…

If you like to nitpick you’ll love “The Wandering Earth”: why doesn’t Jupiter’s magnetosphere fill Earth’s sky with spectacular auroras, why don’t its radiation belts cook everyone in their suits after an hour on the surface? There’s no need to waste your time on trivia, though; the whole premise of the sun turning into a red giant is five billion years out of sync with reality. If you can swallow that, the subsequent plot hinges on a “gravity spike” knocking Earth off course to send it hurtling toward Jupiter. Nobody explains what this spike actually is, or why it wasn’t foreseen by scientists who were, after all, smart enough to turn a planet into a spaceship. Nobody wonders where Jupiter suddenly got all that extra mass from (and where it disappeared to after the spike had passed). This is especially strange because they talk about pretty much everything else; in one scene an astronaut even has to explain to another why they’re slingshotting around Jupiter in the first place. I haven’t seen such epic levels of astronaut ignorance since David Gyasi had to explain wormholes to Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar.

But a “gravity spike” that defies the laws of physics? Nobody wonders about that except the audience.

By the climax— when our heroes ignite the hydrogen-oxygen mix created by atmospheric intermingling, creating a shockwave which kicks the Earth to safety— I’d lost interest in whether those physics would hold up even in theory. I was too busy wondering how such sloppy handwaving could possibly have come from the same mind who created the Dark Forest trilogy. (To give Liu his due: it didn’t. Turns out none of the movie’s Jovian hijinks happened in his novella.)

What do we have then, when all is said and done? We have a pro-science movie with really bad science. We have jingoistic nationalism without nations. We have a Hollywood blockbuster with no villains. Hell, there are barely any heroes— a couple of people give their lives for the greater good but no plucky team of Avengers is going to be able to fix things when five thousand Earth Engines go offline at once. We are all the heroes in this movie, we have to be: The Human Race, pulling together to save itself, taking the necessary steps and making the necessary sacrifices without complaint.

Which is admittedly a lesson we’d do well to learn here in the west. For all its human rights issues, China can at least plan for the future without pandering to some lowest common denominator every few years. Perhaps such a long-term perspective makes it easier to envision the Earth on a 2,500-year voyage to Alpha Centauri; makes it easier,  perhaps, to deal with more imminent (if less spectacular) crises.

Meanwhile, here in North America, we can’t even pass a fucking carbon tax.

Sometimes I almost wish China would just hurry up and finish taking over the world. At the very least that might distract them from making more SF movies.

[1]   “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon” come to mind—the latter of which might be closest to TWE in terms of sheer loud dumb spectacle.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 14th, 2019 at 7:06 am and is filed under ink on art. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

18 Responses to “The Oxymoronic Earth”

  1. Mika

    I particularly liked the fact that half of the world population dying due to the de-orbiting manouver was barely mentioned. One can imagine in a movie made somewhere else that might’ve been a bigger plot point.

    I also liked that the World Government was – in fact – a world government. Not everybody spoke “standard English”, even if they had babelfish translators for the audience’s benefit.

    We discussed the movie in our scifi fan group when it came out (on Netflix) and pretty much agreed with the description offered here of the thematic elements and authoritarian view. Though I have to admit there were a couple of scenes where main characters did disobey direct orders, but all for greater good of state/mankind so I guess that’s acceptable.

  2. Count Friday

    >We have a pro-science movie with really bad science. We have jingoistic nationalism without nations. We have a Hollywood blockbuster with no villains.

    Hmm, looks like you’ve just described _Seveneves_.

  3. David Clark

    It’s a weird historical moment where the left and right are both united in their wish to see China take over the world due to its ability to make the trains run on time – whether it’s to pass climate change legislation with teeth, or to exterminate the Jews and the Blacks. It’s interesting to see China fulfill our universal desire for a strongman who will carve the flesh of the world into shapes that please us.

    TWE: Not much to observe except that it’s unsurprising that when something appears on the Home Stupidity Screen, it turns out to be stupid. I think one of the best things that will result from the coming planetary extinction will be the end of science fiction movies.

  4. Jeremy C.

    Yep, your rundown mirrored my thoughts as I watched that film. Crap science and odd social issues, but really pretty effects to make up for it :). Sort of, the crap science is a major distraction. Would it have been THAT hard to come up with something similar that was at least in the realm of being legit?

    Speaking of recent sci-fi with bad science… I watched Another Life on Netflix. Starbuck/Katee Sackhoff/Niko drew me in. But WTF were the writers thinking? Lets crew our only interstellar FTL ship with the cast of a bad reality TV show ala Big Brother! The science is a major let down too… the scene where they needed to slingshot a star to go FTL? The premise being the more times they orbited the star the faster they would go… And they had to “pull out” after a few orbits and all that extra speed just disappeared. Then there was a Dark matter cloud, that blocked light… and got everyone high… FFS!

  5. Iain Whitecastle

    It is a sad thing indeed, this movie.

    With so many of the movies that have been and are coming out with weak and used up themes and replication of regurgitated stories from the days of yore, I had hoped for this one given Liu for the source and a rather interesting idea in general that it would be better…but nope.

    It lost me at the point of two young kids got into an over done Millennium Falcon cockpit that seemed to serve no purpose but to show the bravery of the children in even trying to drive it…ugh!! So many blinking lights and unexplainable controls….Its a TRUCK guys!!!

    I do generally think that movies are aiming at trying to get and hold attention by methods that have already (sort of) worked in the past without being “better”. That seems to mean no smart people or realistic and relevant characters. I will keep hoping for it but until then I will fall back on movies that I genuinely liked or grew up with that influenced my reading habits and interests…(subtle segue there, eh?)

    Thanks Mr. Watts, your writing keeps me going out and looking at things I most likely would not have if I did not enjoy your stuff so much…

  6. Lars

    I’m not surprised that there was dodgy science in anything based upon a story by Cixin Liu. In the first volume of the Dark Forest trilogy, the Trisolarians not only survived, but maintained civilized continuity, through an astronomical disaster that probably matched the collision of Theia with the proto-Earth. Pretty unbelievable, and it threw me right out of the story.
    This is a persistent problem with engineers who write SF – they just don’t seem to be aware of any greater context for their neat ideas.

  7. Bonnie McDaniel

    Well then, my decision to give this a pass was just as well, from the sound of it.

  8. Mike Williams

    I took it as a dressed-up version of When Worlds Collide (1951) which I watched as a kid

  9. listedproxyname

    Perhaps the lack of focus on larger picture is the one that disappoints people in this case. I might as well consider watching this movie for visuals alone – they seem to be pretty impressive. I’ve seen at least one other Chinese movie trailer recently, was that “Shanghai Fortress”? Oh and they are filming 3BP as well. I am not too excited, I just hope they can learn from their mistakes which are inevitable.

    Now and again, compare two movies. Red planet (2000) and Teh Martian (2015). Maybe you can remember Mission to Mars (same year!) or, uh, Ghosts of Mars or Doom (plain hilarious and not sci-fi at all), just these decent and inaccurate movies – they have plot, special effects, antagonists and drama, but at the same time they landmark the epoch of “casual” movies like that at the break of millennium. In these movies, Mars serves as decoration, a metaphor, or a plot device, but it is never a purpose. Purpose like eternal questions of “what is life”, “what is discovery” or “what is survival against all odds”, etc.

    Now, the Martian looked to me pretty much like decadent Soviet realism movie projected into the reality of today (maybe also because I am that much older and critical now). All plot can be summarised in one long sentence. Yes it is scientifically accurate barring some moments like “dust storm” or whatever, but who cares for that? It is not exciting, it serves no revelations, everybody knows what will happen. No meaningful tension is created to resolve in climax, there’s no antagonism. The cine-film expenditure serves no purpose other than people stroking the “future prediction” capacity which already predates it by at least generation. Hell, Passengers (2016) was more wondrous than that.

    Many of modern ventures I observe are exactly the same – they maintain and sometimes improve their form, copied or inherited from the past, but they are hollow, lacking in weight and even support structure. No soul and no meat, so to say, just a cardboard face. Whatever carbon tax law will be presented and passed, it will inevitably end up as another money pipe if people are not engaged in the essence and purpose of it – the very thing its liberal architects hate the most.

  10. PhilRM


    Yeah, there were things I liked in 3BP,* but the ridiculous physics wasn’t one of them. Liu doesn’t seem to have any idea of how science actually works.

    *And since as far as I could tell, none of those things were present in the sequels, I skipped the rest of the trilogy.

  11. asd

    China’s system is all nice and (in)efficient now, but the trade off is fragility. When shit starts going down the effects will be amplified.

  12. [BLOG] Some Saturday links | A Bit More Detail

    […] Watts at his blog has a critical take on the Chinese SF movie The Wandering […]

  13. Dan

    There was a SF novell “Run of the Earth” (Terre en fuite) written by famous French SF author Francis Carsac in 1960 with the very same plot.

  14. Michael Grosberg

    What I can’t figure out is, why did you expect any kind of reasonable science from a Cixin Liu based work?
    regardless of whether any of the “science” details were in the novella or not, The Dark Forest trilogy is full of bonkers nonsensical ideas (as well as some great ones).

    item 1: the trisolaran system. three stars, one planet that unpredictably switches orbits between the three. supposedly in the alpha centauri system, but the stars are too far apart for a single planet to somehow orbit all three – proxima is 13,000AU away from A/B, but even orbiting A/B would probably make a planet far too cold to maintain organic life. Even positing an imaginary alpha centauri system, the idea of an unstable orbit that lasts for billions of years without being swallowed by one of the stars is highly, HIGHLY improbable.

    item 2: a human ship stumbles upon a 4d patch of space. suddenly, the humans are somehow able to see in the fourth dimension, despite still being 3d themselves, never having any kind of appropriate sensing organ or brains that could process it.

    item 3: the entire solar system somehow becomes two dimensional. This is not only physically impossible but also geometrically (and therefore logically) impossible. you can’t flatten a 3d volume into a 2D surface and somehow also keep all of the original structure intact. there’s just no way to do it, not in this universe or any other.

  15. Tran Script

    Off topic, but @Peter Watts do you have any blogs or websites that you follow regularly? I’m in need to more material to casually read while I’m procrastinating.

  16. LG

    I had similar thoughts when watching Wandering Earth — it is a natural disaster movie like 2012, but with Chinese characteristics. Because the Chinese film industry is an extension of the Chinese government, it has to push government-sanctioned views of how people should behave. Hence no-one panics, there are no selfish/evil bureaucrats/CEOs, everyone does their best to do their duties,and the outcome is never in serious doubt. There’s nothing wrong with exhorting people do act admirably through film, and it can be done well, but Wandering Earth has nothing interesting to say and so is a rather dull feel-good movie. Its sole interesting scene, to my mind, was portraying the effort to move the Earth as truly international.

    For an interesting take on the natural disaster film, check out Shin Godzilla. The giant monster is a natural disaster, and the movie is a study of disaster response, drawing heavily on the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. It’s flawed people doing their best given the situation, a criticism of government bureaucracy, commentary on Japan’s odd relationship with the United States, among others.

    It’s not a movie that either Hollywood or the state-sponsored Chinese film industry can make, albeit for different reasons, any more than they could have produced something like Girls’ Last Tour.

  17. Mike Williams

    The latest Chinese SF spectacular “Shanghai Fortress” is sitting at an IMDB rating of 2.7 after a disastrous opening.

    I am however amused by the Hollywood Reporter’s innumerate story on this: “After the colossal success of sci-fi tentpole The Wandering Earth earlier this year — it earned $700 and rave local reviews — hopes were high that Shanghai Fortress might be the next big breakthrough.”

  18. Jean-Marc Brivet

    Here, in France, the space opera available is, for some time, almost solely focused on the social aspect. Authors and publishers are absorbed by their leftist ideas, sometimes a mess. They have a step often proselyte.