To successfully imitate the kind of mega-budget worldwide blockbuster most closely associated with Hollywood productions, filmmaker Frant Gwo literally went global. 2019’s The Wandering Earth, a sci-fi disaster adventure that became one of China’s biggest-ever box-office hits, takes place in a future world where Earth has been implanted with thrust rockets and piloted out of orbit to avoid a solar disaster. Astronauts must steer the spaceship-planet to a new home, while the surface freezes and its diminished inhabitants huddle underground.
The film’s enormous scope helped the movie become a Chinese smash, though it fell short of a worldwide phenomenon. (In the U.S., it had a limited theatrical run, then premiered on Netflix a few months later.) Wandering Earth’s extensive, sometimes convoluted world-building, drawn from a short story by The Three-Body Problem author Cixin Liu, left plenty of room for a follow-up. But Gwo must have grown attached to the less icy version of his home planet, because The Wandering Earth II, receiving a somewhat wider U.S. release alongside its Chinese debut, is something even less likely than a disaster-movie sequel: a disaster-movie prequel.
Set across multiple decades leading up to Earth’s launch out of orbit (enabled by thousands of fusion-powered engines around the globe), the prequel starts off with plenty of its predecessor’s grab-bag maximalism. There’s a seemingly mad scientist extolling the virtues of a “digital you that can live forever” — an AI-based plan pitched as an alternate way to survive the coming apocalypse. (It’s unclear, but it sounds like the idea was to upload everyone to a Matrix-esque digital world, and leave the actual one to fry.) Pro-digital terrorist groups attack a massive space elevator, explosions and low-gravity fisticuffs erupt, and we learn that 91% of Americans oppose moving Earth out of orbit because they don’t think a problem 100 years away is worth solving. (“The world isn’t on the side of the reality,” one official laments.)
The sprawling results initially feel like a mashup of Don’t Look Up and Independence Day: Resurgence, but as the film enters its second hour, then its third, it brings in even more familiar bits and pieces of other movies. (It runs 173 minutes, including credits and multiple postscripts.) There is so much movie in The Wandering Earth II, and so many disasters, countdowns, and chyrons to go around. The movie may set a record for the sheer number of subtitled locations, timelines, characters, and occasionally even hardware. The first movie’s astronaut, Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing) gets a backstory. So does one of the computer systems. The writing team steals bits of Interstellar one moment, and engages in parallel thinking with Moonfall the next. (“The moon disintegrates in 179 hours.”)
But perhaps the goofiest thing about Wandering Earth II is how resolutely un-goofy much of it is. There are moments of absurdity, but the film is often surprisingly grim, in a way that feels admirably ambitious but questionably useful. Much of the movie has a downbeat moon-gray palette, even in scenes that don’t take place on the moon. The saddest storyline it weaves across the decades is about Tu Hengyu (Andy Lau), a scientist grieving the loss of his wife and daughter, convinced he can fine-tune the digital echo of his young child into a fuller AI consciousness. (Here, there are thematic parallels with Yeon Sang-ho’s JUNG_E, a fleeter and more manageable science fiction movie premiering on Netflix right as Wandering Earth II lumbers into theaters.)
The dead-family storyline isn’t the only obligatory pause for pathos, either. Another character must deal with his wife’s imminent death, since cancer cases have spiked during the rise of dangerous solar activity. At the same time, he’s trying to secure one of the limited tickets to an underground city.
In many ways, Gwo carries this heaviness with more grace than the supposed masters of the modern form. Unlike Roland Emmerich (whose work the Wandering Earth series generally resembles) or Michael Bay (whose Armageddon feels like part of this movie’s DNA), Gwo isn’t afraid of quiet moments amid the bombast. He doesn’t nervously pack his movies with goony comic relief or shameless ploys for applause. Some of his imagery has an eerie, almost mournful beauty — even more so than the previous movie, which found some poetic imagery among the chintzier-looking special effects.
Yet none of this keeps exhaustion from setting in over the course of nearly three hours. Exactly how many countdowns to possible apocalypse can a movie bear, especially when the planet is demonstrably intact at the beginning of the next movie? The audience knows Earth survives, which turns Wandering Earth II into a torture device for its new characters: The planet will keep going, but these poor suckers can still get put through the wringer.
That obviously isn’t Gwo’s intention, and it is remarkable that his three-hour Wandering Earth prequel is simultaneously stranger and more emotionally grounded than the earlier film. Yet even at this length, even with eye-popping moments and believable characters, some crucial humanity feels missing. Classic disaster movies offer something similar to the feel of a horror movie: the terror of annihilation and the catharsis of survival, but spread over a larger canvas. Maybe that model just doesn’t work anymore. Skillfully made as it is, Wandering Earth II feels more like immersion therapy for the modern onslaught of apocalyptic news from around the world. Like franchises, global disasters no longer really end.
The Wandering Earth II opens in theaters on Sunday, Jan. 22, the first day of the lunar new year. Check the movie’s website for locations.