Article by Lawrence McCarthy
It is my carefully considered opinion that Liu Cixin is the greatest writer who ever lived. Decades or centuries into the future, the Chinese will speak not of the Four Great Novels, but of Five, the fifth being The Three Body Trilogy. Given this, it is perhaps inevitable that I would be disappointed by the movie adaptation of The Wandering Earth, and so I was. Not very disappointed, but disappointed nonetheless.
Here are some aspects of the movie that were not grounds for my disappointment:
* The plot of the movie diverges at many points from the written version. Totally acceptable and probably inevitable.
* The written version is thoughtful and introspective, whereas the movie version is a special effects-heavy blockbuster. Again, totally acceptable and perhaps inevitable.
* The lead actor constantly wears an expression of faint amusement. Apparently his performance was well-received by others, and I can’t say it bothered me very much. Tolerable.
* A Chinese citizen of foreign descent appears in the movie, although not in the book, playing a role which in facial appearance, behaviour and narrative function is basically equivalent to that of Jar Jar Binks. Only slightly irritating.
* The director has chosen to tell the story through the Spielbergian narrative of the reunion of father and son, with all of the sometimes jarring sentimentality that implies. Fine. I may think Saving Private Ryan ought to called Saving Private Ridiculous based on the story, but I can’t deny it’s enjoyable. Spielberg is popular, with good reason.
* Liu Cixin makes his stories as scientifically plausible as possible. In the movie we get sound in space, clouds in the sky long after the entire atmosphere should have frozen solid, etc. Annoying, but can be overlooked.
* Direction is sometimes heavy-handed. For example, the AI MOSS interacts with the hero through a white camera when he is being friendly and a black one when he is not. Fine for a blockbuster. The worst offender is a scene where a soldier has to break through a barrier made of glass and ice. Rather than use a drill or other equipment one might reasonably expect soldiers deployed to an icy environment to have, he shoots it with a machine gun. Spent shell-casings pile up next to him in far greater quantity than the bag we see could possible carry. The scene is an unfortunate echo of a very similar one in Charlie Sheen’s Hot Shots.
So why was I disappointed?
The work of Liu Cixin has a very particular ethos. He constantly asks the reader what is the survival of a group is worth. He does not impose an answer to this question, but his work does suggest that it would be worth absolutely everything, except the honour of that group.
In another of his stories, Earth is faced with alien invasion. Defeated after a valiant struggle, the human warriors are offered citizenship as honoured guests of their new alien overlords, but instead lay down on what’s left of the Earth and allow their bodies to become food for the Earth’s most complex surviving organisms: ants.
The other key aspect of Liu Cixin’s work is “Be very careful, because the slightest mistake or oversight may bring total disaster.” In Three Body, a key military post is democratically elected. The people of Earth elect someone on the basis of their pleasant, compassionate personality. Spoiling as little as possible, it takes less than fifteen minutes for the antagonists to strike, with devastating effect.
In the movie adaptation of The Wandering Earth, the first aspect of this ethos is mostly adhered to – the group has ample opportunity for both self-sacrifice and to do the honourable thing – but the second is directly contravened. Throughout the film, people behave in flagrantly irresponsible ways with no comeuppance whatsoever. A woman who may or may not be Angelababy destroys an object key to the survival of Earth in a moment of high emotion, notwithstanding that, as far as the characters know, the human race will die without it. The main character spends most of the film on an irresponsible escapade involving stealing his grandfather’s ID and government property, placing his younger sister and grandfather in great danger. He is not penalised for this is any way, nor does he seem much affected by the death of his grandfather, who does pay the price. A Russian cosmonaut smuggles alcohol, which in the movie is played up for comic effect. The AI MOSS, who is basically Hal out of 2001, somehow was programmed with no means of enforcing its will other than destroying parts of its own spacecraft. In a written Liu Cixin work, this lack of foresight in particular would lead to millions of deaths, if not human extinction. In the movie, everything turns out more or less fine, in typical Spielbergian fashion.
Don’t get me wrong, The Wandering Earth not terrible or even bad. I’m delighted it’s been so successful because that means we will be getting more Chinese Sci-fi blockbusters. I am especially looking forward to Shanghai Fortress. It probably also means more adaptations of the One True Writer, Liu Cixin, so that’s great.
If you’re looking for a popcorn sci-fi flick, The Wandering Earth might fit the bill, but fans of Liu Cixin’s work will undoubtedly find it oversimplified and wanting for the more thoughtful elements of his novels. It’s a third Liu Cixin and two-thirds Spielberg, and they just don’t mix. For this reason, I cannot give the film more than 3 out of 5 stars.
Lawrence McCarthy is from England and is the author of two novels, including Kung Fu Jesus.