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Race for a Space Blockbuster

Will China’s hit sci-fi movie The Wandering Earth be a giant leap – or just a small step for the country’s cinema?

By NewsChina Updated Apr.1

For decades, Chinese cinema has seen a number of successful period action and drama films produced by directors such as Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and Feng Xiaogang. Chinese filmmakers are so keen on exploring the country’s distant past that they seldom turn their attention to the future, so the success of the recent sci-fi blockbuster, The Wandering Earth, makes it an impressive anomaly.  

Directed by relative newcomer, 38-year-old Guo Fan, The Wandering Earth is adapted from the 2000 novella by Three-Body Problem author Liu Cixin. With a cast led by Chinese superstar Wu Jing, who also starred in the smash hit patriotic Wolf Warrior films, the movie follows a global effort to move the Earth away from the dying sun, which in its death throes, will expand and subsume the planet, destroying humanity along with it.  

Scoring a premium release on February 5, the first day of China’s Spring Festival holiday and equivalent to the July 4 slot in the US, the film has grossed over $655 million worldwide, including $650 million in China. It is China’s second highest-grossing film of all time. Some analysts believe it might even surpass 2017’s Wolf Warrior 2 ($854 million) to grab the top spot.  
With spectacular visuals, impressive imagination and an engaging plotline, the landmark epic has opened a new chapter for China’s sci-fi film industry, and analysts are expecting a slew of sci-fi epics to hit the movie theaters before too long. 

Save the Planet
The implausible plot involves a united effort to move Earth away from the dying sun. In the near future, humans huddle in subterranean cities away from the frozen surface. To save the planet, governments rally together to found the United Earth Government and initiate a 2,500-year project called “The Wandering Earth.” This involves building 10,000 giant engines to propel the planet out of the solar system to cross interstellar space to another galaxy 4.2 light years away. The idea is to use Jupiter’s gravitational pull to slingshot Earth toward their destination. 

In fact, the film only uses a 200-word passage from Liu’s original work as inspiration for the plot. The novella’s manifestation of the dark side of human nature, the complexity of human relationships under extreme conditions and the critical depiction of power and politics have all been excised from the film, in favor of the more crowd-pleasing action-heavy blockbuster. 

Wu Jing plays Liu Peiqiang, a widowed astronaut who is sent to an international space station as one of Earth’s pathfinders. He leaves behind his four-year-old son Liu Qi and father-in-law Han Zi’ang (Ng Man-tat). The characters go through the same personal dramas many disaster movie aficionados will recognize – absent fathers, deaths of parents – as inevitably, the mission goes wrong and the Earth is caught in Jupiter’s gravitational field. Who can step up and save the planet?  

Guo Fan points out that China did not go through the same industrialization process as Western countries, therefore Chinese people are not inherently intimate with robots and technology as tropes of sci-fi epics. Establishing a good connection between sci-fi and Chinese culture was a major challenge for the production team, he told movie website China Film Insider.  

In the film, Han Zi’ang, father of the main protagonist, is the character who best represents the characteristics of contemporary Chinese people. Though Han is an elderly person in the story, he was born in 1999, which means that he is the one who connects the film’s fictional world with contemporary reality.  

Han manages a nice mix of comedy and pathos. He remains optimistic when facing the deadly crisis. His positive thinking is in part due to the fact that he comes from an age of material prosperity. For him, the early 21st century – the time in which he was born and grew up – is the best time of all, since it was much richer than the bleak future world they live in.  

“In this film there’s no Hollywood save-the-world individual hero. They are all just regular people, and their acts are driven by personal interests. But when it comes to a life-and-death moment, something simple and heroic that lies dormant inside Chinese might be ignited – that’s the inner strength inside every one of us and once it is triggered, we might choose to sacrifice ourselves and save the world,” the film’s screenwriter Yan Dongxu told NewsChina. 

The Wandering Earth’s story focuses on the bittersweet relationship between Liu Peiqiang and his estranged son Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao), set 17 years after the older Liu jets off to the space station. Its delineation of family relations, one that intrinsically has Chinese characteristics, makes the cold and distant future world more accessible to Chinese audiences. 

In the movie, Liu Qi’s rebellion is deeply rooted in his grudge against his father, who he feels abandoned him when he was left behind on Earth.  

Lead actor Wu Jing, who plays the father, has a four-year-old son, but having starred, as well as helmed, a succession of action blockbuster hits, he has been extremely busy for years, especially when he was promoting his last directorial work, Wolf Warrior 2. His relationship with his son grew distant, which made him strongly relate to his character.  

“I feel extremely guilty for not having spent enough time with my child. The Wandering Earth has a beautiful storyline about a father-son relationship. It always moves me to tears when I see how the father makes great sacrifices for his son,” Wu told NewsChina. Similarly, the director also feels connected with the troubled relationship between father and son. 

“When I was young, I always regarded my father as an enemy. But I understood him more after I became a father as well. My dad passed away several years ago, and personally I see this movie as my message to him,” Guo told NewsChina. 

From the perspective of Guo, the main plot of the movie – to move the Earth rather than move humans away from it – follows a quintessential Chinese mindset: the attachment to homeland and ground.  

“Chinese people are not used to stargazing or exploring the seas. We prefer looking down at the earth under our feet. We long for a peaceful, down-to-earth life, and this is deeply rooted in the country’s agricultural culture through the ages,” Guo told NewsChina.  

“When the Earth experiences this kind of crisis in Hollywood films, the hero always ventures out into space to find a new home, which is a very American approach – adventure, individualism. But that’s not the logic of Chinese. Buying a home in Beijing is so expensive and we haven’t paid off our mortgages yet – if we are about to run away, at least we must take our home with us. This comes from Chinese cultural values – homeland, history and continuity,” Guo said. 

First Steps 
As a boy, Guo had always dreamt of becoming a sci-fi director ever since he saw James Cameron’s Terminator 2 (1991). He spent years studying the genre and waiting for an opening.  

Not having studied filmmaking, as a young director, Guo’s first success was a co-directing credit on the fantasy romance Lee’s Adventure (2011), a cinematic adaptation of a 20-minute cult animation. He rose to fame with his second feature, a low-budget coming-of-age drama film called My Old Classmate (2014). The teen comedy was a big commercial success, raking in $67.9 million at the box office with a cost of only $2.78 million. As a result of this success, Guo received offers – but all were similar coming-of-age stories. Every time he told producers and friends about his dream of making a domestic sci-fi blockbuster, he was turned down as they believed the idea was pie in the sky.  

In late 2014, Guo joined a short directing program at Paramount Pictures with other Chinese directors. A chat with an American filmmaker stuck in his mind. “Do you watch Chinese movies sometimes?” Guo asked, but he was swiftly told “No. You know we don’t watch any subtitled movies.” 

Undeterred, Guo’s desire to make a sci-fi picture was stronger than ever. When the following year he first heard about The Wandering Earth project, he decided to fully immerse himself in the movie’s world for six months.  

Despite his thorough preparation, Guo’s name was not included in list of potential directors for new projects released by the China Film Group Corporation (CFGC) during a press conference the company held at the end of 2015.  

CFGC was particularly cautious about launching a big-budget sci-fi project. As a warm-up to The Wandering Earth, the company produced two high-budget films with impressive visuals: Wolf Totem (2015), directed by renowned French director Jean Jacques Annaud, and The Great Wall (2016), a period action-fantasy movie starring Matt Damon and helmed by Zhang Yimou, which although it doubled its budget at the box office, did not open to great critical acclaim. Wolf Totem received a number of awards on the Asian film festival circuit, and gained plaudits for its impressive visuals. The studio then made its first attempt at the sci-fi genre by producing low-budget movie The Secret of Immortal Code (2018), but it failed both at the box office and in critical reception.  

At first, CFGC tapped leading international sci-fi filmmakers such as James Cameron, Alfonso Cuarón, Steven Spielberg and Luc Besson for The Wandering Earth, but none were interested. 
“We tried all these directors but no one showed interest in making a sci-fi film in China,” Shuo Fang, The Wandering Earth executive producer told NewsChina, “Later we also invited top Chinese filmmakers, but none was willing to take the project on either. After all, they would hardly risk their established career to be the first to test the waters.”  

So at this critical moment, Guo Fan eventually made it onto the shortlist. With assistance from astrophysicists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Guo and his team spent eight months drafting a lengthy imaginary 100-year history from 1997 to 2075 to map out a futuristic worldview. They storyboarded what the politics, culture, economy, entertainment, sports, education, weather and environment of this future dystopia would be like.  

The team partnered with four companies to work on the 2,003 special effects shot within the film, with 75 percent done by two Chinese SFX companies and the rest assigned to New Zealand’s Weta Workshop and Germany’s Pixomondo.  

During the four-year production process, the team faced countless difficulties. An initial three-month filming schedule stretched into six, and costs overran. Worse, the original investors withdrew from the project. It was a harsh blow, and Guo dared not think of commercial success – just breaking even became his only goal. 

“In those years, I felt like I was a marathon runner who ran on their nerves day in and day out but could not see the finish line. During the production, I was constantly afflicted with anxiety and frustration and even lost in desperation and self-doubt. Sometimes I wished I could close my eyes and sleep all day, just hoping to escape reality,” Guo told the reporter about the enormous pressure he had undergone during the production process.  

Blast Off?
The huge commercial success of The Wandering Earth has been breathlessly acclaimed by the Chinese media as no less than the beginning of a “sci-fi era” for Chinese cinema.  

From Guo’s perspective, it is still too early to say this new era has arrived. “As long as we didn’t lose money with this project, then more investors would believe in the genre and more directors would have to try new things in our industry. There’s still a long way to go. I hope we will have contributed to a healthy industry cycle,” Guo said. 

As the director points out, there is no established traditionof sci-fi films in the country. Guo believes the main objective of China’s film industry is to conquer the path toward a much higher level of industry professionalism and maturity. “Simply put, we’re more like a craft workshop while Hollywood is a mature industry. There’s a huge gap between us. The distinction not only exists in techniques, but also in management and ideas. We might need at least 10 years to reach the average Hollywood industry standard,” he said. 

Guo pointed out the team had made efforts to design the plot according to the country’s actual competencies. “A special thing about sci-fi is that it is directly related to a country’s power. Fictional though it may be, sci-fi is still based on reality. For example in reality, China’s real-life space program has achieved a milestone by landing a probe on the far side of the moon, which boosted people’s confidence in our country’s aerospace competencies. So they may find it both exciting and credible when they watch Chinese astronauts playing an important role in helping solve a deadly crisis in the cinema,” Guo said.  

Zhang Miao, manager of the powerhouse studio Beijing Culture, pointed out that a single movie will not bring a new era but as a pioneer, The Wandering Earth marks a great opening chapter.  
“Two prerequisites are required for us to truly enter a new age of sci-fi filmmaking: First, we need a series of outstanding sci-fi movies to be released in the near future, and that will signify the beginning of the new era; second, both Chinese creators and audiences should have built a stronger cultural confidence and give more trust toward sci-fi content in the Chinese context,” Zhang said. 

A still photo of the making of The Wandering Earth