Foreign Movies are in flavor: reviewing two far-flung blockbusters

March 15, 2023


Used under fair use from GIFilm Beijing Studio and Yash Raj Films

Recent foreign movie blockbusters “Wandering Earth II” and “Pathaan” have released to critical acclaim.

The Wandering Earth II takes audiences to a glaring dystopia

At its best, the science fiction genre takes audiences to glimpse new alien worlds while showing them the human nature deep within themselves. The Chinese science fiction film “The Wandering Earth II,” directed by Frant Gwo and released in January 2023, offers the audience an eye into their own humanity by transporting them to a dystopian future where a rapidly expanding Sun threatens to engulf the Earth, leaving humankind to either unite or die. Although fragmented by numerous disconnected narrative jumps, and, at times, an outright glorification of the Chinese government’s ideals, “The Wandering Earth II” ultimately captures the audience’s hearts with emotional scenes. It reflects on relevant themes of climate disaster, human response to global crisis, digital consciousness and what it ultimately means to be human, distinguishing it as a hallmark of modern science fiction. 

Adapted from “The Wandering Earth” novel by New York Times bestselling author Cixin Liu, “The Wandering Earth II” is a prequel to the first “The Wandering Earth” film. Gwo’s new film surpasses his original by honing in on humanity’s response to global crisis. While the first “The Wandering Earth” installment was critiqued for its thin plot structure and disconnection from contemporary society, the prequel impresses fans and skeptics alike with its interwoven plot sequences and the relevancy of its themes. 

The film opens with an overview of the consequences of the expanding-Sun crisis. As global temperatures swell, coastal cities flood and rioters storm major metropolitan areas with the prospect of imminent extinction on the horizon, humans split into factions, each calling for different courses of action. Given that the production of the film began in late 2021, the context can be interpreted as a parallel to the various reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps most surprising then is the international government unity, maintaining order by coalescing into the United Earth Government (UEG). Unfortunately, this warm, hope-inducing image of global cooperation is soured by forced, underlying Chinese government propaganda. It becomes increasingly clear to the audience that Gwo’s film passed under the scrutinous eyes of Chinese censorship in the blatant pitting of Western nations, like the U.S., as antagonists who stand in opposition to noble Chinese efforts. 

Luckily, “The Wandering Earth II” redeems itself in other areas. Its cast of Chinese scientists, astronauts and engineers is well-developed and invested. Albeit complicated and confusing, the numerous narrative jumps from cosmonaut Liu Peiqiang with his dying wife and fellow cosmonaut Han DuoDuo to engineer Tu Hengyu’s heroic world-saving missions contrast the suspenseful space-walking sequences with moments of much-needed emotional tension. The narratives utimately succeed as they converge towards the film’s heart wrenching ending. DuoDuo’s last moments with Peiqiang are touching, leaving the audience a wistful tone as the couple looks over the skyline of their succumbed home city before Peiqiang is sent to space. Hengyu’s story arc is equally as compelling. The sole survivor of a car crash in which his wife and daughter lost their lives, Hengyu relentlessly designs mind-uploading technology for him to re-experience a fleeting two minutes with a copy of his daughter’s consciousness. Through Hengyu’s arc, the audience recognizes the dangers pure digital existence poses as a superficial simulacrum of organic life. 

Still, even in the midst of tragic loss and terrifying dystopian realities, Gwo conveys the underlying heartwarming message of human resiliency and unity in the face of struggle. As stated powerfully by Chinese ambassador Zhou Zhezhi in his speech to the UEG, the first sign of civilization was not evidenced by archaeological artifacts, but of a healed human femur which marks the first instance humans came together to survive. Gwo reiterates the hopeful theme of cooperation through the film’s many inclusions of global representation, in the different ethnicities of the cosmonauts and the applause of the UEG delegates from different nations in response to Earth’s successful efforts.

Another recurring theme Gwo emphasizes is that of digital surveillance. What could be deemed the “The Wandering Earth” franchise’s main antagonist is an intelligent supercomputer known as MOSS, where Hengyu develops and successfully assimilates the digital minds of his daughter and later himself. Many of the film’s sequences are ended with a camera pan to MOSS’s watchful red camera eye until the post-credit scene reveals MOSS’s repeated interferences in causing every crisis that jeopardized humanity’s self-preservation efforts.

The film’s conclusion and final plot twist bring “The Wandering Earth II” back to the omnipresent AI science-fiction trope, already covered in science fiction movies “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Star Trek,” “Terminator” and more. So despite relevant critiques of the current human enterprise and masterful execution of heartbreaking moments mixed with action-packed suspense, both films of the “The Wandering Earth” series over-rely on the hostile AI trope. For the next installment of the franchise to surpass its predecessors, Gwo needs to break the boundaries of standard science fiction cliches and forge his own name in the genre. 

Action-thriller “Pathaan” fails to meet expectations

Released in January 2023, the Hindi movie “Pathaan” has been one of the most anticipated Bollywood films in recent years, as it is film star Shah Rukh Khan’s comeback after five years and also includes notable names like Deepika Padukone and John Abraham. As the fourth installment in the YRF Spy Universe and revolving around themes of patriotism and community, the film focuses on a spy’s journey in stopping a rogue agent and protecting his country.

The titular character, Pathaan, played by Khan, is a veteran agent whose mission is to stop Jim, played by Abraham, a rogue agent who leads an international terrorist organization and tries to spread a deadly disease, Raktbeej, to millions of people. Pathaan encounters various other spies and agents on his mission and flies to places around the world before the movie ends with a satisfying resolution that successfully enthralls fans with Khan’s acting once again.

Nevertheless, the storyline of the film lacked character and plot development, which made it hard to fully enjoy the film. The motives for the antagonist, Jim, fell short of a villain terrorizing an entire country. His reasoning for taking revenge was for his family who was cruelly killed, but as the movie progressed his vengeance landed on attacking millions of innocent people. While there were implications of Jim’s possible psychological disorders, it was not fully elaborated on. Jim lacked the depth needed for a character vital to the story. 

The plot could have also been developed better. There was nothing overly new about “Pathaan,” especially for a film that has been hyped for years. The storyline felt repetitive, clearly taking generous inspiration from many Hollywood and Bollywood flicks and mushing the tropes together. Irritatingly, Raktbeej mirrored COVID-19 but on a deadlier level, hackneying the trend of using the pandemic as a plot device. Most flashbacks are never elaborated on further, instead adding random time jumps and emotional moments that create lulls in the story. 

The movie could have also ended much earlier in a scene where Pathaan and Rubina, a Pakistani agent played by Padukone, who seemingly appeared out of nowhere, chased and cornered Jim on an iced-over lake. The scene could have been a good resolution where the heroes steal back the virus from Jim and protect their countries. Instead, there was a misstep in the fight scene, Jim gets away with the virus and the end was unnecessarily prolonged.

However, the editing and cinematography made the film much more captivating and engaging. Filled with suspenseful plot twists and exciting cameos, the action-packed scenes were gripping, and while a bit over-the-top at times, it created much-needed flair to reel the audience into the movie. 

Additionally, the charismatic acting holds the movie together. While this film is Khan’s come-back, Padukone stole the show with her thrilling fight scenes and alluring performance as a character with a dauntless personality. Abraham’s performance as the antagonist also advanced the film’s flair, from his dramatic introduction of blowing up a car to the inevitable end of his character. The emotions portrayed by the actors exemplified their characters and brought the script to life, adding more style and sophistication to the amateurish storyline.

Despite the growing Hindu nationalism trend currently overtaking Bollywood cinema, Khan, as a Muslim man, openly portrayed his pride for the Muslim community through his character. In the movie, Pathan saves a small Afghan town from a bomb explosion, earning the trust and love of the community. This town plays a major part in Pathaan’s character development and foils Jim’s heinous plans. By not pigeonholing the Muslim or Pakistani characters as villains, the movie emphasizes the openness of religion and opposes the religious intolerance of right-wing Indian groups. 

While far from perfect, “Pathaan” highlights Khan’s acting as he returns to the Bollywood industry from his prolonged break. This super-spy action thriller had many exciting moments, but it was hard not to expect more from a movie starring prominent Bollywood actors. By overusing trends and overlooking the holes in the storyline, the potential of this movie was not taken advantage of. The plot was very predictable and prolonged, having lots of room for improvement, but the acting and action made up for the other inadequacies of the movie, showcasing the actors’ refined talents and exemplifying the importance of community. 

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Larry Wang, Staffer

(he/him) Larry is a senior and staffer on the Epic. Outside the publication, he loves playing Ultimate frisbee and crocheting. He is a fan of Star Wars...

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(she/her) Neha Ayyer is a senior and the In-Depth editor for the Epic. She loves cool stickers and oversized plaid shirts. In her free time, she enjoys...

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