In 2019, a Chinese sci-fi movie was released during the lucrative Chinese New Year period. Its premise: a team of astronauts and rescue workers have to move Earth away from an expanding Sun while preventing a collision with Jupiter.
It might sound bonkers but The Wandering Earth became a surprise hit, making an eye-watering £232 million in six days – a new box-office record for a Chinese movie. The success has spurred an inevitable follow-up film in the shape of a prequel starring Wolf Warrior actor Ju Wing and renowned Hong Kong actor and Infernal Affairs star Andy Lau.
Directed by Frant Gwo, The Wandering Earth II takes place several years before the events of the first movie, where global nations on Earth are working together to ensure the survival of mankind against the threat of being engulfed by a rapidly expanding Sun.
However, mounting tensions pose a risk to the efforts to save humanity, further endangering the future of Earth.
With governments clamouring for ways to save the planet, conflicts between different countries (China versus the rest of the world being an evident takeaway) quickly arise due to the time and energy invested in creating the Wandering Earth project.
But amid the politics, there are ongoing protests against its development as some groups feel their efforts are more usefully put into the Digital Life project, which sees people live ‚digitally‘ after they die.
With violence brewing in the background, people begin to act to support the Digital Life Project – to the point that they are willing to sabotage Earth’s infrastructure and subsequently harm others (setting for an intense fight scene in fluctuating gravity levels).
However, this becomes ironic as society begins to increasingly depend on technology and its ever-growing evolution into AI to expedite the Wandering Earth project, which sci-fans will know is a bad move for mankind.
Despite this, The Wandering Earth II feels a lot more grounded than its predecessor, not because it is mostly set on Earth but because there is a lot more context that supports both movies‘ fantastical premise. The movie draws heavily on the significance of family, which provides much of the drama.
With this in mind, this instalment follows the early career of trainee astronaut Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing, reprising his role from The Wandering Earth), which sees him meet and fall in love with fellow trainee Han Duoduo (Wang Zhi). Despite his loyalty to his wife and young son, Liu is consistently drawn to saving Earth.
The other major character is scientist Tu Hengyu (Lau), who is obsessed with giving his late daughter Yaya a ‚complete‘ digital life after she and her mother died in a car crash. However, his grief and guilt-ridden efforts immediately cause issues and inevitably causes havoc on the Wandering Earth project, creating a new dilemma that establishes the final act as a ticking time bomb.
The Wandering Earth II does stumble in places due to its inconsistent dialogue and tone: Gwo notably raises the excitement in the first act, only for its adrenaline and intensity to dwindle to fully accommodate the events driven by Lau’s character. With a decade’s worth of narrative to accommodate, there is also a lot of plot to cover.
The movie places a lot of emphasis on the emotional conflict among its characters as they battle against extinction, so there is a lot of doom and gloom – either from the impending apocalypse or the frequent brushes with death (which, unfortunately, casts asides most of the female characters).
This provides an abundance of moments that call for optimistic, albeit cheesy, speeches that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Jerry Bruckheimer outing.
The Wandering Earth II’s biggest draw is easily its jaw-droppingly epic action scenes, with aerial fights and huge explosions amping up the excitement levels.
There is so much to visually enjoy when these scenes come to life that it reminds audiences why The Wandering Earth was a genre-defining sci-fi blockbuster – a trend that Gwo looks set to continue with this prequel.
At nearly three hours long, The Wandering Earth II can feel like a slog that plays too much on overly dramatic elements. But there is no denying its ambition and crowd-pleasing special effects, which cry out to be watched on the biggest screen possible.
The Wandering Earth II is out now in cinemas.