Four years ago the Chinese film industry released one of its first big budget sci-fi thrillers, The Wandering Earth, to great acclaim and strong global box office results. When I reviewed it back in 2019, I found it interesting and exciting, partially because of its very non-Hollywood storyline, saying “There’s a lot to like about this fast-moving adventure sci-fi epic, from the sheer audacity of the core storyline to the gorgeous sets and external shots, to the gritty realism of the underground cities… But The Wandering Earth isn’t great science fiction.”
Now there’s a “prequel” that confusingly, best fits in between reel 1 and reel 2 of the original film. The intro story of the people of Earth learning that the sun is poised to supernova and engulf not just the Earth but every planet in our solar system is restated, but the United Earth Government has already been created in this prequel, and it ends before the major second act drama of the original. This ends up being jarring because it’s hard to identify if the writers, notably Chinese sci-fi superstar Cixin Liu (“The Three-Body Problem”), were retelling the story or reminding us of what transpired in the first film.
Deep, complex narrative isn’t the cornerstone of The Wandering Earth II, but it’s easy to forgive this typical tentpole film omission with the endless parade of wonderful action sequences. The film starts out at a military training facility where a cadre of new fighter pilots are learning how to defend the Earth from space wreckage. Without warning, the fleet of training drones go rogue – they were hacked! – and attack not just the base, but the Space Elevator that is a critical link to the space station. It’s fast, visually jaw-dropping, and easily as exciting as anything from Hollywood visual effects studios. And that’s just the beginning. Action sequences in the film include a fight on one of the space elevator vehicles, a battle on the space station, an underwater rescue mission, and all sorts of chaos and warfare on the moon.
With a three-hour runtime, it’s also a bit of a marathon and though it utilizes title cards to help explain the passage of time, you will be forgiven if, like in the mind-bending Netflix series Dark, you occasionally find yourself not realizing that the older character in one scene was the younger character just a few minutes earlier. The main characters are fighter pilot Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing), who keeps dwelling on his wife and daughter and scientist Tu Yuheng (Andy Lau), obsessed with his deceased young daughter. Yuheng is so obsessed, in fact, that he recreates his daughter as a self-aware AI program that is ostensibly part of the Digital Life Project. Humans, we learn, can’t agree on whether to build and fire the thousands of enormous rocket engines to move the Earth out of the solar system or whether to just upload everyone into an incredibly detailed sim so they can live out their virtual lives oblivious to the destruction of the planet.
The love interest is Han Duoduo (Zhi Wang), who was also the love interest in the first Wandering Earth film. Fortunately, she hasn’t gotten tired of having a handsome, heroic Chinese man obsess over her as the crises transpire. There are also terrorists who rebel against the Moving Mountain Project, the effort to escape our solar system. They are endlessly throwing monkey wrenches into the works in the first half of the film, a problem that is neatly resolved – off-screen – at a certain point. The Earth’s nations should be unified as the United Earth Government, but of course, that’s also not quite that simple, and the two most belligerent characters are Russian and American. Predictably.
There’s an enormous cast of additional characters, all noble and all heroic, ready to throw away their own lives in the interest of the greater good. Yes, the Chinese government clearly read and approved the script before shooting began. In an American film, it would be one person going against the organization and somehow saving the day, so a disaster epic where the solution actually depends on teamwork and cooperation is a welcome change. But oh, those disasters. The Wandering Earth II falls into the category of “and then THIS happens” stories, and after a while, you’ll find yourself chuckling at yet another misfire, mishap, misunderstanding, and mistake causing chaos and new problems.
And yet, there are some really interesting questions underlying this big-budget b-movie, including what price we humans would pay to survive an apocalyptic event, whether self-aware AI can replace living humans, whether a sophisticated simulation can be so realistic that it can be a substitute for reality, and, of course, whether nations with greatly differing ideologies can actually work together during a long, drawn out tragedy. The sun isn’t going to supernova for a century so do the people alive today really need to care about the upcoming apocalypse, or can they safely ignore it? Would you?
What makes The Wandering Earth and its prequel/sequel The Wandering Earth II so eminently watchable, however, are the fantastic special effects. Visual effects can’t replace a solid and logical storyline, but when it’s this terrific, it can sure fill in a lot of otherwise daft and illogical holes and hiccups in the script. You won’t come out of this second Wandering Earth film with a new way of looking at the world around you, but you will definitely have a sense of how global top-notch visual effects are in the film industry. Worth watching.