The Wandering Earth II: Wanders too far? Or too fast?

Four years ago, The Wandering Earth achieved a worldwide breakthrough by introducing China as the new leading global force in the science fiction genre. The 2019 epic became one of the highest grossing non-English films of all time. One may argue that a one-time success does not mean Chinese science fiction movies are on par with Hollywood productions, but surely the success of The Wandering Earth II rebuts this argument.

Much anticipated, The Wandering Earth II serves as a prequel to events portrayed in the 2019 movie, with a more ambitious scope, a more star-studded cast and even more spectacular special effects and props, and has raked in more than $6 million worldwide at the box office.

However, before the release of The Wandering Earth II in theaters in the West, The New York Times gave the movie a very low rating, claiming that it “wanders too far”. This begs the question: Do we not encourage the film industry to be creative? As the well-known proverb goes, “The sky is the limit for creativity.” Why does the standard change when it comes to reviewing Chinese movies? While it is commonly accepted that The Wandering Earth II is a science fiction movie as opposed to a documentary, the plotline is bound to be fictional. By the same token, a mature moviegoer would never question why a human, bitten by a radioactive spider, would gain arachnid powers.

In any event, the storyline of the Wandering Earth series is not far-fetched at all. The plot follows an international rescue mission to save human civilization by moving the Earth out of orbit so that it will not be engulfed by the sun. At this critical time of apocalyptic chaos, a United Earth Government — with astronauts and technicians from all around the world — is formed under the United Nations to execute a plan for moving the Earth from the solar system. If some Westerners find it difficult to understand the movie, this is probably because the underlying theme of the movie centers on collectivism, which is very different from the individualistic heroism popular in the West. But if American individuals with exoskeleton suits, or individuals who have been exposed to radiation, can save the planet, why can’t people from other nationalities do so through their joint efforts?

If Westerners really want to understand China, I recommend they watch the Wandering Earth series, because the movies faithfully render Chinese people’s mentality when handling crises that threaten humanity. As first officially proposed at the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012, the notion of “building a community with a shared future” places emphasis on human beings working together for a common goal beyond national interests.

If anything, The Wandering Earth II is not wandering too far, it is wandering too fast, and that stirs unease among its competitors. The rise of Chinese science fiction cinema is a result of the combination of the film industry’s growth and technological advancement. A challenge that has to be overcome when making a convincing science fiction movie is how to create special effects of sufficiently high quality. Between the first The Wandering Earth movie and the second one, the progress was dramatic. A few years back, 75 percent of the special effects in The Wandering Earth were made by China domestically, and that percentage rose to almost 90 percent for The Wandering Earth II. One of the most memorable scenes from the prequel is the cameo appearance of Ng Man-tat, who died from cancer in 2021, as a gesture of tribute. This was made possible through the use of AI technology.

The wider implications are that big-budget science fiction movies are no longer exclusively made in Hollywood, and the recent breakthrough coincides with the national objective of establishing a more technologically advanced China. Perhaps this is the real reason behind those deliberately negative reviews, which have proved to be unsuccessful.

Ultimately, cinematic achievement can be objectively measured by box office rankings. By that standard, it is unconvincing for Western media to say The Wandering Earth II is not a box-office success. Also, after going viral on the Chinese mainland, the movie — which only premiered early last month in Hong Kong — is a hit here, and has attracted many private screenings by expats and youth organizations. I recommend that people from the West watch the movie rather than merely reading movie reviews in Western media; similarly, they would be better off visiting China and seeing it for themselves, rather than filtered through the lens of Western reporters.

The author is a member of the Legislative Council and the UN Association of China.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.