Settling In
China's first sci-fi mega film starts a new chapter
By Ji Jing  ·  2019-02-22  ·   Source: NO.9 FEBRUARY 28, 2019
Moviegoers walk past a poster of The Wandering Earth in a cinema in Nantong, east China's Jiangsu Province, on February 10 (VCG)

For a long time, domestically made blockbuster sci-fi films have been absent from China's film market, leaving fans to satisfy their need for the genre by watching Hollywood productions. The situation has changed, however, as The Wandering Earth, hailed as China's first big budget sci-fi film, takes the country by storm.

As of February 17, the film had raked in 3.66 billion yuan ($540 million), becoming the second highest grossing film in China's history after military action film Wolf Warrior 2, according to Maoyan, a box office tracker and an online-ticketing platform. The film is loosely adapted from a namesake novella by Liu Cixin, a multiple prize-winning sci-fi writer, whose novel The Three-Body Problem won the Hugo Award in 2015. He also won the 2018 Arthur C. Clarke Award for Imagination in Service to Society in Washington, D.C., in November 2018.

In the film, the Sun is dying out and the temperature on Earth dives to unbearable lows. As a result, people have to live in underground cities to escape the cold. In order to save the Earth, people all around the world build some 10,000 giant planet thrusters to move the Earth out of its orbit to a new star system. The undertaking, called Wandering Earth, will take 2,500 years and the journey will be 4.3 light years long.

Liu Qi, son of international space station astronaut Liu Peiqiang, and Han Duoduo, a teenage girl adopted by Liu's grandfather, escape from the underground city, curious about the outside world. However, since the journey is filled with unexpected dangers, the two inadvertently join the battle to avoid the Earth from colliding with Jupiter.

A breakthrough

The film is widely seen as ushering in Year One of China's sci-fi movie market. Ming Zhenjiang, Executive Chairman of the China Film Producers' Association, told the media that China has abundant historical films and its realistic films are also on the rise. However, futuristic films haven't had any breakthroughs for a long time. The Wandering Earth has deeply satisfied Chinese audiences' demand for the genre.

Rao Shuguang, President of the China Film Critics Association, said The Wandering Earth signals the upgrading of China's film industry, indicating China has grown from a country making a great number of films to a leading film producer in the world.

The spectacular special effects and exquisite props are major attractions for audiences. In contrast to the one-hero-saves-the-world model often seen in Hollywood blockbusters, a united government is formed in the film involving countries around the world to confront the apocalypse together. And instead of deserting the Earth, human beings choose to take the Earth on a space journey, reflecting Chinese people's love for their homeland.

Moreover, in comparison to Hollywood films which feature landmarks in cities such as London and New York, audiences were thrilled to see Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai instead.

In 2018, of the top 10 box office films in China, six were domestic productions, while the other four were U.S. sci-fi films. "The Wandering Earth has compensated for a lack of domestic sci-fi films. It also shows that Chinese films have begun to think about humanity's future and joined international discussions about human destiny, which is of great significance," said Gong Jie, a teacher at the School of Liberal Arts of Northwest University in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province.

Liu Cixin was very excited to see his work turned into a film. "My biggest wish is to make my works into films. Now my dream has come true."

China's growing scientific and technological strength has provided the prerequisite for the development of sci-fi films, said Guo Fan, the director of the film. For instance, it is more credible to see Chinese astronauts working in space stations in the film after China's lunar rover Yutu-2 recently made a successful landing on the far side of the Moon.

Having directed only two films before The Wandering Earth, Guo is a relatively new director. He made up his mind to become a film director as a teenager in the 1990s after watching Terminator 2: Judgment Day directed by famous Hollywood filmmaker James Francis Cameron.

The Wandering Earth took four years to make and involved approximately 7,000 staff members. Seventy-five percent of the film's special effects were made by domestic companies, while 25 percent were done by South Korean and German teams.

Guo said he chose mostly domestic companies not only because Hollywood special effects firms are more expensive but also because it's more difficult to communicate with them owing to cultural and language differences. Moreover, top Hollywood special effects companies can hardly spare their best resources as they are often engaged in making Hollywood blockbusters.

The film has also attracted international attention, with Cameron wishing it good luck on China's microblogging platform Weibo. "Good luck with your space journey of The Wandering Earth. Good luck with the voyage of Chinese sci-fi films," he wrote.

Since February 5, the film has hit screens in North America, Australia and New Zealand. The film's official Weibo account announced that as of February 17, it had become the highest grossing Chinese film in North America in five years, earning $3.82 million.

A poster of The Wandering Earth (FILE)

More needed

In addition to the praise that has poured in for the film, there are others who have been more cool-headed. A comment on review website said aside from the special effects that represent the pinnacle of Chinese films, the character and plot development along with the scientific basis of the film have room for improvement.

The producer of the film Gong Ge'er said one film is inadequate for starting a new chapter in Chinese sci-fi films. More films are needed in order to break new ground in sci-fi filmmaking.

Domestic sci-fi films account for a small proportion of China's film industry. According to a report published by the Southern University of Science and Technology in November 2018, the box office revenue of sci-fi films in China reached 9.5 billion yuan ($1.4 billion) in the first half of 2018, of which only 890 million yuan ($131 million), or less than 10 percent, was contributed by domestic films.

Guo said it may take China 10 years to catch up to Hollywood. "If we compare China's film industry to a non-mechanical workshop, its Hollywood counterpart is a well-established industrial system. What China lacks is not only hardware but also advanced management and concepts."

Liu Cixin added that sci-fi films should be more diversified instead of following a set model. Moreover, a full-fledged industrial system should be established for sci-fi filmmaking with a more specific division of labor.

"High-quality content is also important. We need influential sci-fi novels as well as more scriptwriters," Liu Cixin said.

Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo

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