It’s no surprise that The Wandering Earth (2019) has been followed by a sequel. While it was certainly a large-scale spectacle, it wasn’t exactly filled with great storytelling including paper thin characters and every disaster movie cliche under the sun. Even so, it clearly found an audience, going on to become the highest grossing Chinese film of all time, although it has since been surpassed.
Saying The Wandering Earth II is a sequel is actually incorrect, with this entry in the series being a prequel, taking place years before the original film. This explains why Wu Jing returns, as his character was originally killed off in the first film. The Wandering Earth II covers the years before this, taking place over 30 years before the first film, with the plot kicking off in 2044.
The focus here is the early days of the Moving Mountain Project, which we know will eventually become The Wandering Earth Project. Scientists have realized that the sun is quickly dying and will engulf the earth in the next 100 years. With this, the world has to unite in order to build thousands of large engines that when ignited will propel the earth out of our solar system.
While diplomat Zhezhi Zhou (Li Xuejian) thinks that the Moving Mountain project is the only way to proceed, others don’t share his views, thinking the Digital Life Project is the better option to sustain life. This plan involves transferring human consciousness into an artificially constructed computer program, thinking that a perfect virtual life is the only way to survive and a better alternative to trying to move the earth. Some Digital Life enthusiasts are so extreme they are willing to carry out terrorist attacks to prove their point.
As politicians continue to argue in board rooms and conference halls, astronauts Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing) and Han Duoduo (Wang Zhi) train in order to protect the world from disaster as well as fall in love. Meanwhile scientist Tu Hengyu (Andy Lau) also develops technologies that will assist the Moving Mountain Project whilst secretly working on an A.I. that will allow him to communicate with his dead daughter.
Like the first film, The Wandering Earth II is filmmaking on a grand scale, with director Frant Gwo once again creating a visually stunning sci-fi spectacle, with every bit of money being on screen. Other than one noticeable exception, the CGI is easily on par with anything coming out of Hollywood. However, this doesn’t necessarily make the film an overall success, with the prequel having many of the same issues inherent in the first movie.
Once again, the characters boil down to mere archetypes rather than feeling like real people. It doesn’t help matters that a great deal of the film feels like propaganda, with long stretches of the film filled with exposition on the virtues of China and the Chinese people, and how unlike other countries they are willing to put duty to their motherland over anything else.
On occasion this approach can work in the film’s favor, generating some much needed emotion, with you knowing that many of the characters you have been watching may not survive to the end, as they are willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.
It isn’t coincidental that all of the Chinese characters strive in the face of diversity, with almost no shades of grey amongst them (well bar one, but I will get to that later). Every Chinese character in the film is willing to do what needs to be done, with all of them being heroic in the extreme. When terrorists do show up, to sabotage the international space elevator, it is noticeable they are mostly of the white European variety. When it comes to representing the rest of the world, the majority of sympathetic characters outside of China are from Russia, with America shown to be quite antagonistic. This wasn’t exactly unexpected but it is unnecessary, especially in a film that shows how we all need to come together to survive.
However, my main issue with the film wasn’t that the filmmakers took a propagandist slant to proceedings. With a Chinese production these days this is expected, and for the most part I can overlook this as long as the film is entertaining. One just has to look at the recent The Battle at Lake Changjin II (2022) to see how this is possible. No, the real issue with the film is that as a prequel, we are already aware of the outcome no matter how interesting or exciting the filmmakers try to make the plot.
Although Gwo certainly tries his hardest to inject excitement into the run time, much of the film is robbed of its tension due to the fact we mostly know the outcome. The only times the film is successful with surprising its audience is when it either focuses on the action scenes or alternatively the new characters, but even then you can probably guess how they fare considering they weren’t in the first film.
While the first film was mostly an action movie, its prequel takes a different approach, being more slow paced and sombre. While there are large scale set pieces, they are less so than the first movie, with much of the time taken up with discussions about the mission at hand which again we already know the outcome of.
Still, the action is of an extremely high quality. The space elevator attack is a clear standout, featuring all manner of destruction including a fleet of drones reigning down fire on all comers whilst our heroes try to fend them off in the air with fighter jets. At the same time as this, Wu Jing has to go hand to hand with an assortment of terrorists who are trying to set off a bomb on board one of the vessels of the space elevator.
The lengthy finale is another standout, with dual missions taking place, one where a team must travel underwater in order to reboot the internet (don’t ask) where at the same time another team heroically travels on a one way mission to the moon with the intent to destroy it with a series of well placed nuclear weapons. Ridiculous yes, but also exciting stuff that in some way makes up for the more “talky” parts of the movie.
Gwo and his team of scriptwriters do at least add some interesting aspects into what could be another simple disaster movie. During the film there are discussions around artificial life and what it truly means to be human. Before it’s decided to move the earth, the “Digital Life” project is proposed which would digitally store everyone’s consciousness into a virtual world. The big question is could this actually be considered life, plays an important part throughout the film, especially in regards to Andy Lau’s grieving Tu Hengyu.
Clocking in at a whopping 173 minutes, a whole 48 minutes longer than its predecessor, The Wandering Earth II does slightly drag, not totally unexpected considering the length of the film. The previously mentioned exposition scenes aren’t exactly the kind that normally generate excitement, even less so when you already know where they lead. Thankfully, Gwo still manages to overcome these by keeping things moving at a steady pace. It does help that he and his cast are able to make the frankly ludicrous plot almost plausible, with everyone doing their damnedest to treat this as realistic as possible.
Wu Jing has become the blockbuster king, with not only The Wandering Earth but both Battle of Lake Changjin films and Wolf Warrior 2 (2017) all becoming the highest grossing Chinese films during their release. He’s pretty much become the go to guy for big budget actioners, so it’s understandable why Gwo would want him to return for part 2.
As expected, Wu is his usual likeable self, with a much beefed up role compared to his supporting part in the original.
Like the first film, Liu Peiqiang is a relatable everyman, with him being an easy hero to root for. Those disappointed by the absence of his martial arts skills in the first film will be pleased that he gets a chance to show them off this time round, albeit in a limited capacity, only unleashing them in one action scene. Admittedly this pales in comparison to what he has displayed in the past but it’s much appreciated, with this brief fight scene forming part of the finest set piece of the film.
As great as Wu is, acting honors must go to superstar Andy Lau who injects a great deal of emotion and pathos to his character. This isn’t surprising as Lau didn’t become one of the most popular Hong Kong stars of all time for nothing.
Lau doesn’t appear until roughly the 40 minute mark, but once he does he commands the audience’s complete attention. His character is easy to relate to, with his desire to be reunited with his dead daughter easily understandable. He is the one main character of the film that doesn’t come across as a complete archetype, showing definite shades of grey. The fact that his character could so easily devolve into the villain adds further depth, with it seeming at points he would be willing to do anything it takes to see his daughter again.
His wish to bring his daughter back by using A.I. is easily the most interesting and well developed aspect of the film and plays into the first film’s deadly A.I. M.O.S.S, which is alluded to here. Clearly the filmmakers have further plans with this element if the series is to continue.
The remainder of the main cast all do quality work. However, when it comes to most of the western side characters, the performances are almost laughable. Considering the amount of money spent on the production I would have hoped more care would have been spent on the casting. When they’re not delivering their dialogue poorly, they are atrociously dubbed with one character sounding as if he’s straight out of South Park (1997). It brings me back to the Hong Kong films of the 80’s and 90’s where the production would just get any westerner available, no matter their acting ability.
The Wandering Earth II is slightly overlong but there’s enough spectacle here to fill multiple blockbusters. It doesn’t bring much new to the genre but does pose some interesting questions, even if the script does become somewhat preachy and nationalistic on numerous occasions which dilutes the impact these would have.
Even so, I am able to overlook the film’s drawback as the film is still a well mounted sci-fi actioner that gives the likes of Wu Jing and Andy Lau a chance to shine. No doubt The Wandering Earth II will do well at the box office which will probably lead to yet another entry in the saga.
Wu Jing can next be seen starring alongside Jason Statham in the upcoming Meg 2: The Trench (2023) whereas Andy Lau will be starring in the crime thriller I Did It My Way (2023) which will find him sharing the screen with an assortment of screen greats with the likes of Eddie Peng, Gordon Lam, Lam Suet and Kent Cheng amongst them.
Plot: 3/5 Acting: 3.5/5 Action: 3.5/5 Overall: 3.3/5