With surprisingly little fanfare, Netflix just released the biggest movie of 2019—aside from Avengers: Endgame, that is. The Wandering Earth was a box office smash in China, a high-octane blockbuster with a ridiculous concept that measures up to Armageddon or Avatar. Set in the not-so-distant future, the sun is aging into a red giant, prompting an ambitious mission to physically move the planet Earth into another solar system.
This bonkers premise is enticing in itself, so I was slightly disappointed by the film’s often-serious tone. Instead of leaning into its own absurdity, The Wandering Earth spends much of its time on bombastic CGI action sequences, with the final hour blurring into one long cataclysm of falling rocks and exploding infrastructure.
People who caught The Wandering Earth during its limited U.S. release will probably have a better time than Netflix viewers. Its best moments involve visual spectacle, as Earth trails majestically toward Jupiter, resplendent in fiery red and orange. Much of the action, however, will suffer from being watched at home instead of on the big screen.
Following the decision to propel Earth across the galaxy using giant rocket engines, humankind retreats to live in underground cities for the duration. Here we meet our everyman heroes Liu Qi (Chuxiao Qu), Han Duoduo (Jin Mai Jaho), and Han Ziang (Man-tat Ng)—a rebellious young man, his sulky teen sister, and their grandfather. Their father Liu Peiqiang (Chinese megastar Wu Jing) is an astronaut who spent the past 17 years on the space station that scouts ahead of Earth’s journey. With no way to communicate with the space station (something the film never explains, because the station’s entire purpose is to send messages back to Earth), Liu Qi grows up resenting his absent father. So while the story emphasizes themes of teamwork and everyday heroism, the main emotional arc is the same daddy-issues conflict we’ve seen a million times, with minimal character development for the female leads.
The Wandering Earth‘s first act is the best, exploring life in the underground city. Dodging government surveillance, Liu Qi and Han Duoduo hatch an illegal plan to visit the surface. They’re a double-act of charming dummies who clearly don’t consider the consequences of their actions, accidentally getting caught up in an apocalyptic catastrophe as Earth gets sucked into Jupiter’s orbit.
Teaming up with the predictable crew of soldiers and scientists, this average family must find a way to save Earth from its second apocalypse in their lifetime. The stakes are high but unfortunately, the emotional storytelling doesn’t really cut it. The main cast remains frustratingly shallow, only building up a couple of characters before launching into an hour of continuous action sequences.
If you’re in the mood for a mindless blockbuster with lots of CGI explosions, The Wandering Earth fulfills the requirements for a generic disaster flick—not aggressively bad like Transformers, but certainly not measuring up to the schlocky joy of something like Pacific Rim. But if you’re looking for some interesting sci-fi counterprogramming to the ubiquitous Avengers: Endgame, you’re better off elsewhere.
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