The Wandering Earth aka I heard you like expansive life-affirming hard sci-fi

#1

I saw this film the other night and it’s slowly infesting my brain. It’s based on a novel by Cixin Liu (author of Three Body Problem, which won the Hugo a few years ago) and the premise is that the sun is becoming a red giant that will consume the Earth within a few hundred years. In response, all the countries of Earth collaborate on an enormous plan to use rockets to physically move the entire planet 4.2 light years away to a different solar system with a non-exploding sun. I know it sounds like a crack sci-fi premise but it’s treated with such gravity and care that I find that it works.

Humanity moves into giant underground cities that are arrayed to support the tens of thousands of Giant Rocket Engines needed to accelerate the planet to 5% of the speed of light. The film takes place in year 17 of the 3500 year journey during which Earth approaches Jupiter for the gravity assist on Lunar New Year (is that still a thing? I think they left the moon behind). It goes a little bad. Ok, a lot bad.

There are powered exoskeletons. There’s a genial AI who follows the United Earth Government’s directives. There are multiple perfectly executed Chekhov’s guns. There’s a touching story between a father who joins the mission on the satellite platform tasked with navigating the planet through space and his son who he left behind, which provides the emotional core to the film. On the Mohs scale of science fiction hardness, I’d put it at quartz or above. There are so many individual choices that I appreciate about this film that I don’t want to spoil.

Even though it’s a Chinese language film, it’s surprisingly playing with subtitles in the US right now and I can’t recommend it enough. The CG is well made, on par with a B+ tier Hollywood movie—it gets the job done without drawing attention to its flaws. There is a shocking dearth of rah-rah Chinese nationalism in the plot. If you’ve ever read Three Body, you’ll know that Cixin Liu is an imaginative sci-fi writer who can really sell you on the premise and this film is no different.

I’m not worried about this movie not doing well; it’s already world #1 at the box office from Lunar New Year sales and I suspect its US release is purely dick-waving on the part of its investors to say they could. But it does give American audiences a window into what the future of mainstream non-Hollywood films might look like. I won’t call it the best film of the year or anything but I was riveted from start to finish and fully invested in the characters by the end.

P.S. Oof this ended up longer than I expected. Go see it before it leaves theaters! I think it’s worth the price of admission.

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#2

FYI - Netflix has picked this up for U.S. and international distribution.

They haven’t officially announced their distribution plans, but Netflix almost never releases their films theatrically for anything more than a token qualifying run (i.e. one week in LA, or NY to qualify for Oscars, a la Roma), so it seems like this will be streaming sooner rather than later.

I’m pretty excited for this. Even though I thought The Three Body Problem’s secret MMO plot was awkward and bizarre, it’s still one of the smartest sci-fi books I’ve read in years, and doesn’t go off the rails the way Seveneves, The Passage or The Expanse do. (Although I haven’t read the rest of the trilogy yet, so I suppose it could.)

#3

I should try again with The Three Body Problem then: I tried reading it last year, when admittedly I wasn’t in the best mental space, and bounced completely off of it in the first chapter, which is really unusual for me.

#4

I should note that The Wandering Earth is very different from Three Body. It trades plodding global conspiracy for a disaster movie sense of urgency.

RE: Netflix picking it up. Cool! Glad it can get to a wider audience. No clue how limited its current theatrical is.

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#5

… doesn’t go off the rails the way Seveneves , The Passage or The Expanse do. (Although I haven’t read the rest of the trilogy yet, so I suppose it could.)

The rest of the trilogy doesn’t go off the rails, but the rails go places. Along the way it never felt like “we space magic now!” to me - the technology might get fantastical but not in a fundamentally different way to the first book (which had supercomputer protons).

#6

I haven’t seen the movie but I did I just finished the three body problem and one real nice thing have to say about it is that The Trisolarans as described in the book are one of imaginative well drawn sentient alien lifeforms I’ve ever seen in a piece of fiction.