(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...
The Wandering Earth II takes audiences to a glaring dystopia
March 15, 2023
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.