Sunday, January 29, 2023

Moving Mountain Project: The Wandering Earth II (2023) Review

Director: Frant Gwo

Notable Cast: Andy Lau, Wu Jing, Li Xuejian, Sha Yi, Ning Li, Wang Zhi, Zhu Yan Man Zi


Not that most of us can remember a world pre-pandemic at this point, but if you do and you were following the rise in dominance of the Chinese film industry upon the global market - you might remember Frant Gwo’s massive blockbuster hit, The Wandering Earth


Unleashed during the Lunar New Year in theaters (yes, even with a limited release here in the US) the film took one of those silly sci-fi concepts and managed to make a film that embraced the Hollywood formulas and style established by Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay. However, it managed to capture the fun of a sci-fi disaster film and embed a ton of heart into the mix. 


It’s not all that surprising that a big-budget sequel, The Wandering Earth II, would get greenlit. What is surprising is that not only is it a prequel and not a sequel - a choice that could have easily and horrifically backfired, but it manages to be better than its predecessor in almost every facet. The Wandering Earth II is a science fiction opera that douses its audience with massive spectacle, bold cinematic heroics, and intriguing themes around sacrifice. Yet, it still manages to craft melodrama that sprints the line between corny and tear-drivingly effective while delivering on the white-knuckle disaster spectacle Hollywood made famous in the 1990s. 


The Wandering Earth II never wanders. It’s an expertly crafted slice of blockbuster brilliance and, if it’s still in theaters when you read this, you should definitely see it on the biggest screen possible. 


The scope of this film is massive. Although its narrative structure is borderline a dramatization of “past” events in its world-building, where it often displays a count down to the next event or next major crisis of the plot, Gwo manages to encapsulate two movies worth of plotting and characters into this one tale. During the film’s initial spew of information for the audience, it discusses a little project titled “The Moving Mountain Project.”  This includes the baseline concept of how humanity must come together to build 10,000 jet engines on the surface of the Earth so we can break the orbit of the sun to avoid being devoured by its expansion


Not only does this project name indicate the effort necessary to accomplish this plot device, but it’s a statement in how Gwo and his co-writer Ge’er Gong are aiming to manage the pieces of this story. Due to its structure that pops into the major events for the plot and its ensemble of characters, The Wandering Earth II covers a lot of ground. Two major plot lines, a baker’s dozen of characters, and massive plot devices push the film from one major disaster event to the next. Some might find the script bloated but Gwo and his team understand that the audience is glued to their seat for two things: big tense filled disaster set pieces and the heroics of humanity. Sure, that latter piece is certainly PRC-approved in pushing China and their feats to the forefront, but the feelings and heart of the characters remain universal. 


It is these human elements of The Wandering Earth II’s script and direction that truly soar over of its predecessor. The dual narrative, one led by Wu Jing’s Liu Peiqiang and the other by Andy Lau’s Tu Hengyu, tackles similar themes around sacrifice, family, and the complexity of humanity in trying to balance personal goals and decisions that place others in front. Although the two certainly take very different routes to get there - where Wu Jing is a space pilot and Andy Lau is a scientist that works on supercomputers, Gwo aims to have them parallel one another to get the film’s themes across to where the intertwining plots culminate effectively in the third act. 


There are moments that border on cheesy, where the heroics of people are just inherent to the human condition and no one questions their own ability to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, but Gwo and team make them work. One can see how some viewers might find the big melodramatic swings emotional bait, as many tropes of lost families or the hardships of love come into play, but strong performances from both Wu Jing and Andy Lau easily carry the film through those moments with relative ease. Considering how much of a powerhouse that Andy Lau is in most films, it was especially surprising to see Wu Jing hold his own for his portion in this film. Turns out, not only is Wu Jing an incredible action star in his own right, but his acting skills just keep getting better and better over time. 


The two are helped by an impeccable secondary cast (for the most part) that help drive home some of the plotting and themes. The occasionally poor dub for Russians or foreign characters might be one of the bigger obstacles for the film to overcome, but when actors like Li Xuejian or Wang Zhi pop up and nail their respective roles it’s easier to overlook those smaller bit parts that lean too far into tropes and formulas. 


Most viewers are apt to remember the action and disaster set pieces though. The Wandering Earth featured a ton of Hollywood-inspired CGI destruction fests and this prequel rarely hesitates in trying to one-up the original. An initial terrorist attack of drones and spies on the giant space elevator of the first act might seem like a wild misfire on paper, but strong Macross vibes and potent visuals make it one of the highlights of the film. The same goes for the finale and its tiered tension as multiple teams are working together that range from nuking the moon to rebooting the internet in a sea-leveled Beijing in what basically constitutes an underwater heist sequence. It’s all wildly entertaining to an absolutely ludicrous degree but, again, they make it work and it’s almost jaw-dropping in seeing it all gel together. Hey, Emmerich - no offense but The Wandering Earth II puts your Moonfall movie six feet deep. Just saying.


The Wandering Earth II might be spectacle packed, but it’s definitely emotionally driven. No matter what, the reason that this blockbuster works is that it finds the balance between the two and threads the needle in so many outlandish ways that it’s bound to impress. It manages to make a prequel exciting, even though we know how things turn out, and the heart that beats underneath its valor-filled characters and crumbling structures somehow beats loud enough to make it all worth the time. 


And, in its own weird way, the film manages to lay the groundwork for an even more intriguing Wandering Earth III premise for the near future. Considering how successful this one is as a film, I hope that the next one goes even bolder and embraces some of the bigger science fiction themes that simmered underneath the disaster film formula. In the meantime, let’s all just appreciate how The Wandering Earth II beat the Hollywood system at its own game and continues to decimate the box office. 


Written By Matt Malpica Reifschneider

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