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2019-02-11 22:30:51 Voices

The hit Chinese science fiction film “The Wandering Earth” dominated this year’s Lunar New Year box office, raking in over 2 billion yuan ($296 million) in less than a week. Audience reactions to the movie, which is based on a short story by Liu Cixin, have so far been largely positive, and the movie currently has a score of 7.9 out of 10 on the review site Douban.

Although “The Wandering Earth” is not China’s first attempt at producing a sci-fi blockbuster, there’s no doubt that the genre has traditionally been dominated by European and American productions. And while several Chinese sci-fi authors, including the Hugo Award-winning Liu, have made names for themselves in recent years, many feel that the country’s film industry has lagged behind. The success of “The Wandering Earth” is therefore an important step toward challenging the notion that China is incapable of producing popular or good sci-fi fare. 

As a sci-fi author myself, I have particular reason to be excited about the film’s box office — not to mention the filmmakers’ success in condensing Liu’s labyrinthine plotting into a compact sci-fi disaster story peppered with Hollywood-quality visual effects. More than that, however, I hope “The Wandering Earth” finally signals the global arrival of truly “Chinese” sci-fi. Indeed, in my view, director Guo Fan’s greatest achievement lies in how he solved a problem that has plagued Chinese science fiction movies for years: how to naturally integrate Chinese culture and sentiments into a genre that has been dominated by the West for over a century.

The plot of Guo’s “The Wandering Earth” adaptation is, like many of Liu’s stories, complex, broadly imaginative, and stuffed with extreme scenarios and existential choices. The tale takes place in a bleak future, at a time when the expansion of the sun threatens to engulf the earth. Humankind decides to respond by building massive thruster engines on the planet, capable of pushing the earth out of its current orbit and into the depths of the universe, in hopes of reaching a more habitable solar system. When the planet instead gets trapped by Jupiter’s gravitational field, however, the crew of an orbiting space station must decide whether to abandon the earth in order to preserve something of humanity, or sacrifice their own lives in a low-probability attempt to free their homes from Jupiter’s pull.  

Chinese audiences’ understanding of science fiction is largely based on Western imports like “Avatar,” “Interstellar,” and “2012.” This makes sense: Modern science fiction as a genre originates in the Industrial Revolution and early 19th century Europe, while its visual language owes much to the American film and television industry. A relative latecomer to both contemporary sci-fi and effects-heavy blockbusters, China’s film industry has struggled to match Hollywood’s output and quality, which is why it was nice to see “The Wandering Earth” buck these trends. But I believe the film’s popularity with domestic audiences is about more than its successful use of a big budget and cutting-edge technology to ape Hollywood: Guo’s film is an ode to Chinese values and the country’s growing self confidence. 

In a recent interview, Guo told me a story about a 2016 trip he made to San Francisco to find potential production partners for “The Wandering Earth.” Although he didn’t reach a deal, Guo said his American interlocuters remained excited about the movie’s potential. But they didn’t quite understand Liu’s story. “Why would you take the earth with you when you’re trying to escape, especially if there’s a huge crisis there?” Guo remembered one of them asking. 

At first, Guo thought it was a joke — thinking the characters’ reluctance to part with their homes could have something to do with China’s skyrocketing real estate costs — but the more he thought about it, the more he realized that Liu’s tale contained a very different view of Earth and homeland than that found in much of Western sci-fi. “Since ancient times, the West has been an oceanic civilization, constantly going out to sea, and looking up at the stars,” he told me. “[While] for thousands of years, the Chinese people have faced the earth, with the sky behind them. They have a deep affection for the land, and can’t let even an inch go. They fight with their lives for the land.”

These values are reflected in Guo’s “The Wandering Earth.” So is the importance of homecomings, another common motif in Liu’s work — and Chinese culture more broadly. To be sure, the hero’s struggle to return home is not a uniquely Chinese theme: Odysseus drifted for 10 years before eventually reuniting with his wife; Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” is a classic sci-fi example of a “going home” story, in which the protagonist must travel through a black hole before finally returning to his daughter; and even in “2012,” the hero spends much of the film longing for his family.

However, the Chinese notion of homecoming is distinct from its Western counterpart. “Tiberium,” the screen name of a popular sci-fi commentator on Douban, puts the distinction this way: The Western notion of “home” emphasizes relationships — that is, family and friends. Meanwhile, the Chinese notion of home emphasizes a return to a geographical homeland, regardless of what — or who — is left there. Tao Yuanming, a well-known early fifth century Chinese poet, once extolled the importance of returning home, even if one’s home is on the brink of collapse. In Chinese culture, one’s birthplace is crucial: Its significance may even outweigh family connections.

So, in “The Wandering Earth,” when the solar system is about to be destroyed, humans naturally choose to take their home with them on their quest for salvation. And when the movie’s space station-dwelling protagonist dreams of home, he dreams of making it back to the place where he grew up, even though he knows that everything has likely changed beyond recognition.

This emotional logic is characteristic of Chinese sci-fi, so much so that Guo sees Chinese feelings about home and homeland as the very heart of the country’s take on the genre. “What is Chinese science fiction?” he asked. “A vehicle that can really express our cultural and spiritual core can be called Chinese science fiction. Otherwise, we’re just imitating others and telling the same American stories.”

I’m curious how Western audiences will react upon seeing the film. And I hope that, with a wide international release, “The Wandering Earth” will spark discussion of these values and cultural tenets and the place of Chinese science fiction within the broader genre. That would be a victory, not just for the Chinese film industry, but for artistic expression and exchange. 

Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.

(Header image: A promotional image for the film “The Wandering Earth.” VCG)