Wednesday, February 06, 2019

The Wandering Earth

Happy Lunar New Year to those who celebrate it, and sincerest thanks from those of us who don't for making it a week to release a bunch of big, fun movies. Although I guess that means we kind of do celebrate it, doesn't it?

I kind of intended to celebrate it more last night, but the MBTA made it harder than is ideal; despite it being an unseasonably gorgeous day, I got hit with two long delays on my bus: After missing the 8:15am one to work, the 8:50 didn't arrive until something like 9:10, and then to balance it out on the other end of the day, the 5:45 back into town didn't come until around 6:05, which even with almost zero time idling at Alewife is not going to get me back to Boston Common in time for the 6:55pm show. Luckily, AMC's Stubs A-List has been pretty good about letting you cancel reservations without a whole lot of issue, and there was still a good seat for the 9:50pm show. On the one hand, it meant I couldn't do a double-feature with Pegasus; on the other, time for barbecue at Redbones.

It was worth the wait, though, and I find myself liking it more as I think about it. It does the basic sci-fi action blockbuster stuff really well, looks genuinely fantastic in Imax 3D, and just up and goes for it whenever something's got the potential to feel too silly. It's the sort of sci-fi movie where you remember, just as the characters do, an early conversation about how Jupiter is 90% hydrogen and hydrogen is rocket fuel and suddenly realize that just completely blowing up the largest planet in the solar system is on the table. Go big or go home.

It's kind of a bummer that the chances to see it in its full Imax 3D glory are going to be rare in the U.S.; Boston Common has it in that format today and tomorrow afternoon before giving the screen to The Lego Movie 2, and it looks like the screenings starting Friday are 2D only. If you're reading this now, I'd advise trying to see it in Imax 3D tonight because you might not get another chance.

One interesting thing: This was a pretty last-minute booking - it wasn't on the schedule on Thursday - and it seems to have bounced Crazy Alien right off the schedule. Seeing as that was apparently the big winner at the Chinese box office the other night, I'm kind of surprised it just disappeared; did the animal cruelty controversy get some traction, is it just how things shook out in Boston, or did someone sign a distribution deal so that we'll see it later?

Liu Lang Di Qiu (The Wandering Earth)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 February 2019 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax-branded 3D)

You can't rightly say that China didn't pull out all the stops with what's being described as the country's first big-budget science fiction adventure after years of seemingly only movies about The Monkey King getting this kind of blockbuster treatment; The Wandering Earth is a movie of audacious scale that sometimes it seems to sacrifice everything else, but why not go for broke? The Chinese New Year IMAX 3D spectacular is grandiose and exciting space opera, well worth seeking out on a big screen now rather than discovering it on a streaming service a couple years from now.

It posits that the Sun will enter its red supergiant stage several billion years ahead of schedule, but with just enough lead time for the world to band together for a truly audacious plan: Building ten thousand "Earth Engines" around the planet, capable of thrusting the planet and the three billion souls who have relocated to underground cities on a 2,500-year journey to Alpha Centauri. A Navigational Platform International Space Station flies ahead, charting a course and searching for anomalies. That's where astronaut Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing) has been stations for the past 17 years while his son "Hu Kou" Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao) and orphan Han Duoduo (Zhao Jinmei) are raised by Peiqiang's father Han Ziang (Ng Man Tat) in Beijing's Underground City 3. With Peiqiang due to rotate home as the station and Earth approach Jupiter, a resentful Qi makes plans to run away - but a "gravity spike" from the gas giant means that instead of being accelerated out of the solar system, the Earth is caught in its gravity well, causing earthquakes and massive failures of the Earth Engine system. While his family is caught up in desperate - and seemingly futile - rescue and repair operations, Peiqiang and the other astronauts are ordered to go into hibernation to conserve resources, which doesn't sit right with him at all.

The science in this fiction is sketchy as heck, but the filmmakers are able to make that work by being utterly sincere about the whole thing. Maybe not necessarily serious - Peiqiang's cosmonaut comrade and a Chinese/Australian in the next jail cell over from Qi and Duoduo are funny characters, and there is an occasional bit of whimsy to be found in the design - but Duoduo's class has room for both brown-nosing students and her rolling her eyes at them, and nobody ever acts like haven't been living in this world for the past couple decades. The big sci-fi action flows somewhat logically from the bits of the setting the audience is asked to take on faith, and also from the attitude inherent in the setting. A project this massive doesn't leave a lot of room for hidden villainy, so even the conspiracies are well-meaning enough, and the whole thing is inoculated against any cynicism one might feel about stirring, heroic speeches. There are little logical bits like how the brainstorm one kid has was, in fact, also proposed by the folks who should have thought of it.

That gives director Frant Gwo (also one of half a dozen or so writers credited with adapting a novel by Liu Cixin) and his effects teams all the grounding he needs to splash imagery that looks like it could have come straight off the cover to something by E.E. "Doc" Smith across the screen, from a beautiful space station that conveys scale with its detail but doesn't look over-rendered to a tense trip through a Shanghai that has flooded and then frozen, with derelict skyscrapers serving as a sort of chimney to get over the ice. There's a bit of a video-game feel to some of the future-tech locations and vehicles, but the also feel built for pulp adventure, so that's not so bad. The space scenes work better than they've got any right to, considering they often ask the audience to buy into the Earth with a bunch of little jets pushing it forward, but there's a weird majesty in them, especially when Jupiter starts to loom large in the sky and the planets' gravity has each pulling at the other's atmosphere. It's action at a massive scale that manages to be both mind-bogglingly big and still something that the audience can follow, which is not something even the best Hollywood blockbusters can pull off.

(This naturally demands the biggest screens available, and is likely getting them in China; in North America, its time on the Imax 3D screens is limited to the two and a half days between the first day of Lunar New Year on Tuesday and the early shows of The Lego Movie 2 on Thursday, though it will continue on regular screens through the weekend. It's worth the best ticket you can spring for, sight-and-sound-wise.)

It's the sort scale that can sometimes smother the more human-sized parts of the film, and that does happen here, to a certain extent - when all the soldiers wearing power armor show up, there's little effort made to make them individual characters as much as kind of the necessary cogs needed to keep the story moving around the civilians, although Zhang Yichi is an enjoyable, energetic late addition as the engineer charged with restarting one of the massive "torque engines". Action superstar Wu Jing turns in a fairly decent performance as Peiqiang despite not having any actual martial-arts sequences, although he's kind of isolated on the station, and the broad performance of Arkady Sharogradsky as cosmonaut Makarov isn't helped by what appears to be shaky dubbing. The core group on Earth is not bad at all - Qu Chuxiao, Zhao Jinmai, and Ng Mang Tat give a feeling of connection as a family while still having their own issues, and Michael Kai Sui is enjoyable enough tagging along.

Gwo keeps them all busy, and he's not bad at all at keeping the action moving without it becoming frantic or overwhelming. There are a couple moments when he and his co-writers seem to be stretching a bit to get from point A to point B quickly, or when he and the editors have a little trouble balancing everyone involved in the finale, but mostly it's admirably solid action filmmaking, easy to follow even when it's trying to convey tight-quarters chaos. The big sequences are put together well, built out of actions the audience can instinctively grasp but blown up to planet-threatening scale.

Those particular strengths and weaknesses mark "The Wandering Earth" as something of a formula blockbuster, no matter what its origin, but it does that stuff better than most, well enough to notice it's doing this sort of thing well. And aside from just doing things well, it manages the occasional moment when the people watching it realize that they've been maneuvered into a position where the logical next step is titanic and absurd but also the only place the movie can go, and that's the sort of delight this sort of movie should create, no matter where it comes from.

(Dead) link to review at EFC.

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