It used to be that only Americans, and sometimes Brits, could save the world in the movies. Now it's China's turn.
In director Frant Gwo's sci-fi epic The Wandering Earth, coming soon to Netflix, a ragtag bunch of lovable Chinese astronauts and truckers-turned-engineers saves the world after the sun begins to fade.
Despite the United States possessing the world's biggest economy and most active space program, in The Wandering Earth there are exactly zero American characters. And, honestly, only a few non-Chinese ones.
That doesn't make the movie any less fun.
Whether intentional or not, the exclusion of Americans is an act of cinematic revenge for Chinese director Frant Gwo and his mostly Chinese cast. In blockbusters going back decades—ones that aren't James Bond movies, that is—Americans have been the saviors.
Sure, the Chinese played a big role in the climate-change thriller 2012. But consider Independence Day and the Transformers flicks. Hell, with the notable exception of Black Panther, most of Marvel's superheroes are Americans. One even has "America" in his name.
Don't forget perhaps the most egregious silver-screen example of American savior-ism. In director Michael Bay's 1998 sci-fi flick Armageddon, a ragtag bunch of American miners-turned-astronauts saves the world from a giant asteroid.
Recall that in 1998, China was the world's most populous country and seventh-largest economy and had a thriving space program. But the only role it plays in Armageddon is victim. In a fleeting shot, a chunk of the asteroid obliterates Shanghai and its millions of inhabitants.
The Wandering Earth flips the script on Armageddon. The only reference to America in the Chinese film's two-hour runtime is a three-second shot of the New York City skyline in a faux news report.
America's absence in Frant's film is a handy metaphor for China's rise in space and in the global film industry.
After 20 years of intensive investment, Beijing arguably has surpassed Russia to become the world's second space power after the United States. China has its own space station, its own rocket industry and its own lunar-exploration program.
While NASA vacillates between returning to the moon or forging ahead to Mars, the Chinese space agency steadily plugs away at more powerful rockets, bigger space stations and more ambitious extra-planetary rovers and probes.
Meanwhile on Earth, the Chinese movie industry is growing in sophistication and ambition. The Wandering Earth, which cost just $50 million and has earned more than $600 million worldwide since premiering on February 5, could be the movie that transforms China from a strict importer of high-concept action movies to an importer-exporter—and a real competitor in the global market for big, dumb, loud cinema.
Art, it isn't, despite being based on a short story by Cixin Liu, one of China's most acclaimed science-fiction authors. The Wandering Earth posits a near future where the sun is sputtering. The nations of the world band together to build a vast network of volcano-like engines, transforming the planet into a giant spaceship.
Guided by a massive navigation spacecraft, Mothership Earth blasts out of the sun's gravitational pull, aiming for the next closest life-supporting star. It's a voyage that the movie explains will take 2,500 years. To survive the trip in the cold of space, humanity moves underground.
The trip immediately hits a road bump. Engines fail and an anomaly on Jupiter tugs the passing Earth toward its stormy surface. To reignite their planet's malfunctioning motors and escape Jupiter's pull, our stalwart Chinese heroes in space and on Earth's icy surface must work together and, in some poignant cases set to mournful music, sacrifice themselves.
It's a ludicrous concept but The Wandering Earth sells it, hard. The sets are colorful and look lived-in. The largely digital effects, while lacking the weight of practical effects, at least zoom way out to underscore the scale of the story. Some of the space shots are downright painterly.
The direction is steady. The performances are earnest. But for all the meticulousness of the art design and the ahem, gravity, of tone, The Wandering Earth feels weirdly small at points.
After all, it's a story about the whole world working together. But when humanity's ambitious plan falls apart, only a few Chinese astronauts and truck drivers can save everyone else.
In its national myopia, The Wandering Earth highlights the equal silliness of Armageddon, Independence Day and its U.S.-made ilk, when they too posit global crises that somehow have only American solutions.
Frant told the government-run Global Times newspaper that he studied the Hollywood model of moviemaking before directing The Wandering Earth. But he said he made the movie for Chinese audiences and not the international market.
Still, after The Wandering Earth opened big in China and enjoyed a brief run in a few U.S. cinemas, Netflix scooped it up for wider distribution starting some time in 2019.
Despite its 7.6 out of 10 rating at the Internet Movie Database, you could say The Wandering Earth is bad. But it's the fun kind of bad. And it's even beautiful in some scenes. It's a thick slice of cinematic cheese.
As Chinese movies finally wrestle away from their American competitors a share of the world box office, it's strangely comforting to watch a film like The Wandering Earth.
Swap out Frant for Bay and the Chinese cast for Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck, and you'd still have pretty much the same flick. Only the national flags on the spaceships and spacesuits would be different.
The real revelation in The Wandering Earth is that enjoyably bad movies know no nationality.