The year is 2020, and the Chinese box office is on the verge of eclipsing the American film industry, a trend that began in 2018 and continued with the success of The Wandering Earth, a big-budget movie set in outer space. The Wandering Earth follows a group of Chinese astronauts as they save Earth as it actively flies away from the Sun, which is on the verge of destroying all life.
Based on Cixin Liu’s novella, The Wandering Earth was made with a reported $50 million, but grossed six times that -- $300 million.
Its success is striking given it is the first major Chinese sci-fi movie. There was no real precedent for the glitzy space opera in China or Hong Kong, so it’s unsurprising director Frant Gwo says he was inspired by American sci-fi like Terminator 2.
Liu’s novella is exceptionally influential, since science-fiction didn’t flourish in China until the ‘80s. Before then, it was essentially government propaganda, focusing on two themes, as Lisa Raphals writes in her indispensable 2019 Osiris article on Chinese sc-fi: “1) the scientific imagination as the source of technoscientific development, and 2) the imagined future of communist society.”
Raphals notes that Gwo’s The Wandering Earth movie provides “science education through a cast of scientist characters, using patriotism and optimism to resolve conflicts, and settings in a near and -- by implication -- possible, future.”
The Wandering Earth may not be realistic, but its nationalism (pretty much everybody but the Chinese are either complacent or evil) also hails from long literary tradition.
Still, The Wandering Earth wasn’t the only Chinese or Hong Kong science-fiction movie from the last decade. Last year, the popular E.T.-esque comedy Crazy Alien followed in the same Speilberg-inspired footsteps as Meow, the tonally berserk, mostly irresistible 2017 comedy wherein Hong Kong leading man Louis Koo plays the human host to a man-sized alien cat from the planet Meow. There’s also Impossible, the 2015 mainland production about Memeda, a sassy, wish-granting, golf ball-sized alien from another dimension which may or may not be Heaven?
Impossible, sadly, was never released outside of Southeast Asia, but it’s still compelling, despite being generally sappy, given the way that Memeda consoles Liguo (comedic megastar Baoqiang Wang), his human companion, by helping him travel back in time to the moment when Liguo’s daughter was hit by a car. In that scene, Liguo realizes that his daughter would still be alive if he wasn’t in business with Yiran Wu (Chengpeng Dong), a greedy mini-mogul who specializes in group-hug-centric team-building seminars. In this way, Impossible is a representative Chinese sc-ifi movie, since it uses genre tropes to reaffirm family values and take a swipe at capitalism.
Chinese exceptionalism is a major theme of the jingoistic alien thriller Shanghai Fortress, now on Netflix. In that movie, Earth has become dependent on Xianteng, a miraculous natural resource from space. Unfortunately, alien invaders want our Xianteng surplus, and destroy every major Xianteng-reliant city -- except Shanghai. It’s up to the city’s square-jawed military to defend the world, much how it’s up to Jing Wu’s man of action to save African missionaries from Eurotrash mercenaries in Wolf Warrior 2, the 2017 blockbuster written and directed by Wandering Earth star Wu. Shanghai Fortress is China’s answer to hawkish American blockbusters like Independence Day, only its siege narrative is a little more straight-faced, and its CGI-heavy action sequences are (sometimes) more impressive.
The Wandering Earth fans might be interested in Mad Shelia, a low-budget Mad Max: Fury Road-inspired dystopian adventure. Mall goth mercenaries who ride around on ATVs are the heavies that Xiao Fuo’s heroine faces; goons working for a one-eyed, smartphone-addicted warlord who wants to kidnap Shelia so she can have his baby.
Fighting the wrong enemy will probably remain a staple of Chinese cinematic sci-fi, since the state has a huge influence on media. But if there’s more weirdness from wherever Mad Shelia came from, maybe the future’s brighter than it looks.
This essay is part of the Inverse Singularity Awards, a critics' poll and essay collection about the best genre movies of the 2010s.