China’s first big-budget disaster film is very much on brand. It’s big, loud, dumb, and almost completely devoid of interesting characters or internal logic. In fact, if you thought rebooting the sun or restarting Earth’s core was crazy, try on rocketing the entire planet Earth across the galaxy to escape our expanding sun. Yeah, it’s out there. In other words, it’s a big-budget disaster film. Believe it or not, I have a soft spot for these, for the gargantuan images and garish visuals, for the rando humor and perfunctory themes of family, honor, and fighting spirit of all mankind. Unfortunately, The Wandering Earth is a mixed bag even by those low standards. I went in with such low expectations and still managed to wonder silently, “would I rather be asleep right now?” It’s not that there’s nothing to like. Haunting images like Shanghai encased in ice, the remnants of a frozen tsunami, and Jupiter’s eye looming on the horizon are gorgeous displays of affection for what this genre can offer on a grand scale. At the twenty-minute mark I was wondering if I might be in for a certified cartoon, so silly and fake were the effects. As the story progresses the VFX progress too, eventually competing with the best of Roland Emmerich. There’s even a grace note or two near the end when Wolf Warrior Wu Jing takes the wheel, and they’re legitimately touching, even if they’re borrowed from a gazillion other blockbusters.
The problem isn’t a lack of heart, money, or harrowing visuals. Hell, the problem isn’t even a plot so preposterous even I was questioning the science of it all. No, the problem is editing. You thought Bohemian Rhapsody had the worst most editing? This movie moves at light-speed and to its detriment, leaving the audience twisting itself in knots trying to figure out just what on Earth is going on scene to scene. Who’s the new guy? The new girl? Why should I care? Why are they in a new location now? Why are we here? That’s essentially the entire second act, trying desperately to keep up with a film that relies heavily on exposition yet somehow makes zero sense. Couple that with half of the dialogue consisting of irrelevant numbers like “unit 11028” or “engine 4250,” and nearly all of it in voice-over for some reason, and Wandering Earth ends up dizzying for all the wrong reasons. That’s editing, folks. Maybe it’s those subtitles in broken English, or maybe I’m just slow, maybe I’m dumb American and this is China’s fuck-you breakneck pacing, but from what I can tell they cut this film within an inch of its life, jettisoning much of the connective tissue that brings a story together. With that connective issue went character work apparently, as we’re asked to care about secondary jarheads and assorted bumpkins who barely get an introduction. I couldn’t tell you the names of half of these people. China’s big break is lucky it’s so pretty.