It's a bad time for blockbusters. Popcorn movies that used to be the tentpole of the movie industry are now relegated to microwave popcorn and streaming services. However, some movies are still so big they defy the home viewing experience and almost replicate the immersive feel of going to a movie theater. One of the best of these movies is lurking amongst other international Netflix originals, a hidden gem that missed American screens but speaks to our time perfectly.
The Wandering Earth is a 2019 Chinese sci-fi movie that doesn't pull a single punch. It opens with a heartfelt goodbye between a son, his father, and his grandfather. The father is bound to an International Space Station near Jupiter, where he will oversee a massive undertaking on Earth.
There's then a barrage of exposition. Our planet is doomed to be engulfed by the sun, so a United Earth Government decides to use hundreds of fusion engines to stop the Earth's rotation and propel it away from the sun, out of the solar system as a whole.
As a result, the Earth's surface is permanently frozen, and an ever-diminishing population lives in underground cities beneath each engine. It's there that we're introduced to the son, Liu Qi, all grown up, as he tries to take his adopted teenaged sister Duoduo to the surface for the new year using his grandfather's driver's license.
Naturally, that's when something goes horribly wrong. The transport Liu Qi's driving gets roped into a rescue effort — on the very day he's supposed to be reunited with his father. The fate of the entire Earth suddenly rests on these two and the motley crew they find along the way.
The Wandering Earth combines the action-adventure casualty-heavy aspect of classic '70s disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno with the high-stakes spacefaring setting of more recent films like Interstellar or Ad Astra.
There's no shielding the viewer from just how grim the situation is. In the very first scene, we're informed the world population was halved due to massive tsunamis, and it just gets worse from there. Whether it's nameless extras or beloved characters, there's constant heartbreaking loss — but it all just motivates the central mission. The survivors must make sure those deaths aren't for nothing, even if that means blowing up Jupiter. Yep, you read that right. They attempt to ignite the atmosphere of Jupiter.
In between all this bombastic action with impressive scientific validity and special effects, there's also a family thread concerning the tenuous relationship between Liu Qi and his father, who's been on the Space Station nearly all his life. The conclusion of the movie hinges on them, their memories, and their relationship, giving a literally solar-system-wide story a poignant, intimate ending.
If you're missing the sensation of settling into a reclining seat with a huge soda and a box of Junior Mints, this movie just might be the closest you can come to that new Michael Bay feeling without having to leave home. Escape into a worse version of Earth for two hours. You'll leave feeling better.
The Wandering Earth is now streaming on Netflix.