The Wandering Earth II (2023) Review

The Wandering Earth II (2023) Review

“The Wandering Earth II” Theatrical Poster

Director: Frant Gwo
Cast: Wu Jing, Li Xuejian, Ning Li, Andy Lau, Wang Zhi, Zhu Yanmanzi, Sha Yi, Zhang Yi
Running Time: 173 min. 

By Will McGuire

The Wandering Earth 2 represents a new high-water mark for production values in Chinese cinema. One look at the opening credits will tell you that both this film and its 2019 first installment are the product of literally the entire Chinese cinematic apparatus, working in concert to try and produce a spectacle film that speaks to a worldwide audience. The story is sprawling, and by design, it hops madly across the globe in both setting and language. It is China’s attempt to measure itself against the benchmark of Hollywood spectacle and to announce their capability to tell stories that speak to the world.

The nearly three hour story begins with such an in depth summary of the situation at hand: the Sun is becoming unstable and in 100 years, the Earth will be uninhabitable, in 300 years the solar system will be destroyed. The governments of the Earth have unified to construct a propulsion system for the Earth to move it back to a safe distance, but the project and the enormous associated cost has come under fire from political dissidents and is in danger of suffering a fatal setback. This particular installment of the story is a prequel, which means it contains the fatal sin of most prequels that we already know how it’s going to turn out.

It contains most of the virtues and vices from the original film: the chief problem being the scope of the story itself. There’s so much the filmmakers need to get across that there are times, particularly in the first act, where so much exposition is dumped all at once that the film resembles a History Channel documentary or a newscast more than a story where characters grow and change. How can there be any characters when we’ve got so much plot to get through?

Where the film shines is its technical achievement. There’s a commitment to real excellence in science fiction spectacle that’s been missing from Hollywood for some time. The space elevator sequence alone is breathtaking, especially on a big screen, and the film’s final moments find the giddy fun of the first film’s nutty premise.

Special attention must be paid to two veterans of Hong Kong cinema: Wu Jing, who plays a cocky astronaut and Andy Lau who plays a haunted scientist. These two guys really went above and beyond to inject personality into a production that could swallow any actor whole. Wu Jing’s character is never as funny or charming as the script seems to think he is, but his natural charisma shines through even when he’s using broken English. Lau is a tour de force as a heartbroken research scientist who makes the decision to upload his dead daughter’s brain into an AI construct and is just hammered for his sins as a result. I would pay to watch an entire two hour film that dealt only with his plotline and he’s a powerful enough actor that he could carry it off, no matter what the language.

The Wandering Earth 2 is primarily valuable though because it echoes many of the same chords Star Trek does: humanity is worth saving, it has a future, and both of these things are true because humans strive to better themselves and create something to leave to the next generation. The major intellectual difference being that Star Trek always saw 60’s American progressivism as the engine for this evolution where these films cast a higher premium on themes that will be familiar to anyone who watches CCP approved genre films like Wolf Warrior: usually distilled to “self-sacrifice.”

Even with that somewhat sinister postscript, I must confess to being touched by science fiction that is not dystopian or post-apocalyptic. These kinds of popular myths are important and they reveal the anxieties and hopes of a culture and it was nice to see one from people who believe we have a future again.

The film is flabby and at times unfocused, but the effects work and Andy Lau make it a recommendation. It’s got heart, and so its sins are easily forgivable.

Will McGuire’s Rating: 7/10