How China became a leading global force in science fiction cinema, as shown by The Wandering Earth and its new prequel
- The rise of Chinese science fiction cinema is a result of the film industry’s growth, China’s space successes and writers like Liu Cixin creating great stories
- Adapted from a short story by the Hugo Award-winning sci-fi writer, The Wandering Earth and its prequel, now in cinemas, have set new benchmarks for the genre
This week sees the Hong Kong cinematic release of The Wandering Earth II, Frant Gwo’s blockbuster prequel to the 2019 Chinese box office smash hit.
The story is a planet-sized allegory for climate change that stresses the urgency of world powers pooling their resources and collaborating to save the planet from destruction.
In Liu’s narrative, the sun is dying and, as it does, it threatens to engulf the Earth. World leaders are at odds over how best to evade this apocalyptic event until they rally behind China’s “Wandering Earth” project, for which thousands of engines have been built that will propel the planet light years through space into an orbit out of the sun’s path.
It is a journey that will take 2,500 years to complete, and is therefore a sacrificial mission from which none of Earth’s living population will benefit.
This concept touches on numerous real-world issues, in addition to generating an abundance of pulse-pounding on-screen pyrotechnics.
The franchise has notable influential predecessors in Hollywood cinema, such as James Cameron’s The Abyss, Michael Bay’s Armageddon and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.
Unlike those films, however, it is China and not the US that is spearheading the mission to save the world – and audiences have responded with unbridled enthusiasm to this spectacular display of national heroism.
This lack of home-grown success in the genre ensured that investors remained reluctant to put their money into expensive, potentially risky productions.
Couple that with the inherently problematic nature of many speculative science-fiction themes, which feature dystopian societies and authoritarian regimes, and it is little wonder that the genre was generally avoided by Chinese filmmakers.
Meanwhile, on the big screen, the most expensive productions China has ever financed chronicle the achievements of Chinese leaders, scientists and astronauts in saving the world time and again. So what changed?
First and foremost has been the aggressive expansion of China’s film industry, which has seen the addition of thousands of new cinema screens and a concerted effort by the government to nurture talent and promote its output.
This eventually saw China’s film industry briefly overtake that of the United States to become the world’s largest in 2020.
Simultaneously, the emergence of Chinese sci-fi authors like Chen Qiufan (The Waste Tide), Hao Jingfang (Vagabonds) and Hugo Award-winner Liu Cixin (The Three-Body Problem) has presented filmmakers with a wealth of intelligent, internationally celebrated material with a uniquely Chinese perspective on humanity’s future.
Most influential of all, perhaps, have been the giant leaps forward achieved by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) in the past two decades.
China put Yang Liwei, its first astronaut, into space in 2003. Since then, the CNSA has conducted multiple moon landings and sample-collecting missions, begun construction of the Tiangong Space Station, and in 2021, landed the Zhurong rover on Mars.
For the very first time, young Chinese men and women are growing up harbouring a seemingly plausible dream of one day going into space, either as an astronaut furthering the nation’s exploration of our solar system, or merely through commercial space travel, which is looking increasingly feasible every day.
Inevitably, the China Film Administration has encouraged the development and production of films that celebrate China’s accomplishments in space as well as presenting positive and inspiring portrayals of Chinese nationalism.
The year 2022 also saw Moon Man, adapted from a South Korean web comic, in which Shen Teng plays an astronaut stranded on the moon after an asteroid appears to destroy Earth.
No other Chinese sci-fi film has come close to emulating the scale and success of The Wandering Earth, however, with the possible exception of its new prequel.
In the first film, Wu Jing saves the planet almost single-handedly after the mission to move it into a new safe orbit goes awry. The film took more than 4.7 billion yuan at the box office in 2019, and the follow-up appears to be on course to do similarly interstellar business.
The Wandering Earth franchise is packed with eye-popping action and brimming with big “hard science” ideas relating to virtual reality, artificial intelligence and – yes – blasting the planet to the opposite end of the galaxy.
What it delivers even more than state-of-the-art popcorn thrills is fearless Chinese heroes who get the job done.