Tuesday, January 24, 2023

The Wandering Earth II

Happy Lunar New Year to all those who celebrate, and for the rest of us, I hope you also had a good Sunday!

I meant to get a photo of the other standee for a Chinese New Year release that's hanging around a corner of the AMC Boston Common theater but which hasn't opened yet; maybe we'll see it next week. Anyway, I suspect that with only so much room for Chinese films over this week, the big Mandarin sci-fi action thing was probably going to plow over the Cantonese courtroom drama, because, woo, the place was busy - when I got out of Alice, Darling and grabbed my food, there was a line snaking around the lobby to get in, and I'm guessing I was the only non-Chinese person in it. Kind of slow-moving, as it takes four or five seconds to scan a QR code with a phone when you can glance at a ticket and rip it in two, but that's the way things work now and it's better than the frustrating delay behind people who have apparently never bought a movie ticket before and don't know how to do it at the box office. They're also supposed to check IDs for the A-List programs, but the ushers there apparently recognize the Caucasian guy who goes to all the Chinese movies.

Nice of them to turn on the subtitles for one person in a packed 510-seat auditorium.

I was amused to see that it apparently has a censor-board number of 2023-001, which makes me wonder if those get handed out based on the lunar new year, so any Chinese film released in the past couple weeks would have still had 2022 numbers. Didn't see a Well Go USA logo before the film, though hopefully the lack of that doesn't mean Well Go is just handling distribution services. It would be really nice if they also picked up home-video distribution for both films - apparently, the first hasn't gotten any sort of Blu-ray release in the past three years, what with it being stuck in Netflix purgatory, let alone 3D or 4K releases. It would be nice if this were playing in 3D theatrically - some of the big effects sequences have that look where you can see some things were clearly meant to have a depth effect - but I'm just glad I could see it at all.

As a random thing, it took me almost to the end to notice that the little girl Yaya was wearing a sweater with bunnies and that the case for her tablet had bunny years, because it's the year of the rabbit.

Liu lang di qiu 2 (The Wandering Earth II)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 January 2023 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax Xenon)

The Wandering Earth was a big, audacious swing when it was released on Lunar New Year in 2019 - China's first big sci-fi blockbuster and a space opera with a fairly ludicrous premise - but it was also a major hit in its home country. This follow-up refines things in some ways but doesn't necessarily try to one-up the first conceptually very often. That's probably wise, even if it does accidentally show just how quickly we can get jaded about our big fantasies these days; three years is all it takes for the Earth itself being used as an escape pod on a millennia-long journey to a new home to be old hat.

As this film opens in 2044, the Earth is still in orbit around the sun, and while the "United Earth Government" has started work on the ambitious plan to flee the solar system, there are many who don't see the urgent need to act now when the sun won't even expand to the point where it swallows the planet for a hundred years. Air Force pilot Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing) has reported to the staging platform in Gabon to join the astronaut corps, where he meets and is instantly smitten by Han Duoduo (Wang Zhi). At the UEG, China's representatives Zhou Jiechi (Li Xuejian) and Hao Xiaoxi (Zhu Yanmanzi) are spearheading the "Moving Mountains Project", although the adherents to the one-time rival project "Digital Life" launch a terrorist attack that Peiqiang and Duoduo must attempt to thwart on-scene. On the moon, two of the developers of Digital Life, Tu Hengyu (Andy Lau Tak-wah) and Ma Zhao (Ning Li) are working to use their quantum computing expertise to control the prototype Earth Engines being installed on the moon for the Lunar Exile phase of Moving Mountains, which is both a proof-of-concept even as leaving the moon in Earth orbit would complicate navigation exponentially, though Tu has continued to work in secret on uploading human consciousness, specifically his daughter Yaya, who was fatally wounded in a car crash.

This prequel aims to be both a bit more mature than its predecessor while also trying to top it in spectacle, and the team involved certainly seem to refine what worked about that film that it does pretty well on that count. The filmmakers know that it will be looked at more closely, scrutinized for consistent lore and no longer treated as a groundbreaking novelty. It does all right by that, with pointed jabs about how many will ignore a problem right up until it's too late (mostly pointed outward at the USA, but, you know, fair) and being able to save its FX bullets because much of the film takes place in a more contemporary setting. It's a solid enough film up to the point where its predecessor is starting to loom on the horizon. That's when you know Peiqiang will get out of the danger he's in and the Earth Engines will ignite, and the raw suspense isn't there. Fortunately, the Chinese film industry has practice at films about historic heroism with foregone conclusions, which this essentially is.

Indeed, it's a smart prequel and a decent take on the folks-pulling-together story: The writing team comes at it with a logical risk for the Moving Mountains/Wandering Earth project that certainly could play into the future films that will surely come in the series (it is a 2500-year journey, after all), offering intriguing ideas about how it could play out as the credits roll. The cast of characters are likably duty-driven, if kind of uniformly so, especially among the Chinese main cast (foreigners with various questionable accents and readings get much more chance to be amusingly imperfect), though Wu Jing does a nice job of making Peiqiang more or less the same guy as he was before, if less burdened by the time with his son that he's missed (though I'm not really buying that he was in his twenties at the start of the film. The unity of purpose from the rest of the cast makes Andy Lau's new addition stand out a bit more; there's a bit of ruthless but level desperation for which few other characters have an equivalent.

And there's no denying that the two big visual effects sequences are outstanding, worth the biggest screen they can be found on (and staged in such a way that is a shame Well Go isn't giving this a 3D release). The first is as good a big hard-sf action piece as you'll find, easily grasped while built around fun future tech details and able to match enormous scale to the human endeavors to cause/stop them. Wu Jing even gets to do a little martial arts this time around, albeit mostly wire-fu based around a space elevator being in free fall. The finale could probably do without the two cross-cut mission structure - the filmmakers work hard, but the underlit bit inside a flooding server room is just never a match for all the cool FX on the moon, especially the final coup de grace.

It's also got the expected landmark destruction, and one gets the feeling that director Frant Gwo doesn't know if the series will go in this same direction again, so he gets his 2001 and Star Wars moments in, though the film's at least built in a way that they make sense there. Those familiar references are part of how this movie isn't the same sort of crazy big swing as the first - it can't be - but the filmmakers are pretty smart about building on what they've got.

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