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AS CHINA demonstrated its international space credentials by landing a lunar probe on the far side of the moon in January this year, sci-fi film The Wandering Earth was hitting the screens. It too could redefine China’s credentials as a major player, this time in global cinema.
The story of Earth’s migration to a new solar system to escape annihilation, it’s based on the novella of the same name written some two decades ago by Chinese sci-fi author Liu Cixin. Directed by Frant Gwo, it’s the world’s highest-grossing film so far in 2019, with box-office takings of almost $700 million to date, mainly in China.
Cixin was at the forefront of Chinese science fiction in the 1980s, an era when China reconnected with the world after the long internal political struggles of the cultural revolution in the 1960s and the 1970s.
His first full-length novel, China 2185, was written three decades ago and combines a utopian futuristic vision with critical commentary on the social and political issues facing the country. It was never officially published but distributed free via multiple online reading platforms and it’s considered by critics as the foundation novel for Chinese science fiction.
Cixin has continued to write and publish stories which share similar visions for a better world through scientific fantasy. His novels include The Devil’s Bricks, The Era of Supernova, Ball Lightning and The Three-Body Problem trilogy. Adapted as a screenplay for a film under the same title, the latter has yet to see the light of day but Amazon reportedly has plans for a three-part $1 billion TV series.
Released on February 5, 2019 — the New Year holiday in China — The Wandering Earth is being marketed as emblematic of national pride. Catching up with Hollywood has long been a state-driven ambition for the Chinese film industry, which has been dubbed “Huallywood.”
A massive production, involving more than 7,000 cast and crew, the end product has a similar look to films such as Gravity or The Martian, with special effects and post-production featuring a range of international companies.
The Wandering Earth is not only a love letter to Cixin’s literary and cinematic idols but also to his ideal of humanity. It's a demonstration to a global audience what today’s film industry in China can achieve and its epic scale comfortably competes with Hollywood blockbusters. It’s the first real break-out success for China’s sci-fi cinema after several failures, including Future X-Cops and Bleeding Steel, neither of which made a mark internationally.
Reflecting a growing confidence and sophistication among Chinese film-makers, its narrative also mirrors China’s growing geopolitical importance. With Earth facing annihilation at the hands of an ageing and rapidly expanding sun, the United Earth Government takes the decision to propel Earth to another system by using enormous thrusters running on fusion power. Built across the planet, their manufacture is co-ordinated by China, now the dominant global power.
The country’s leadership qualities are encapsulated in a sequence where a speech delivered by a Chinese schoolgirl turns global despondency about the dangers of the mission into hope for the future.
Like many Hollywood sci-fi films in the past which have promoted US values, The Wandering Earth delivers a manifesto of Chinese exceptionalism. Only China has engineers capable of solving such a massively complex problem and the will and the leadership to see the planet through a crisis so huge that even the artificial intelligence harnessed to help has informed the rest of the world to simply give up.
I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions about the message this aims to deliver about the global crises faced by our own world today.
Apart from China, the film has been released in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where it’s doing brisk box office. A theatrical release date in Britain has yet to be announced but Netflix has acquired the film’s global digital rights and this will allow non-Chinese audiences to get a feel for the sort of themes that mainstream film audiences are used to now in the country — themes that reflect a new world order developing at an ever-more rapid pace.
A fuller version of this article is available at the conversation.com, where it was first published.
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