By: Daniel Volfson
This is a movie which truly combines the best of both these directors’ grotesquely overwrought worlds. We can thank Cameron for being the muse that inspired the flimsy pseudoscientific plot, the kitschy steampunk decor, and the flashy Hollywood-tycoon ambition. Bay fills in the rest with that patent school-bully spirit of blind destruction and over-the-top special effects flair (though there’s a marked absence of voluptuous supermodels). It straddles the line between masterpiece (in some sense of the word) and catastrophe, gradually devolving into a monstrosity that even a visionary hybrid of the two directors wouldn’t be able to tame.
The movie takes place in a future defined by the Earth’s precarious orbital state. The only thing that’s preventing Earth from fatally colliding into Jupiter is an arsenal of gyroscopes which are losing their efficacy by the minute. The conditions on Earth’s surface have become so inhospitable that the majority of the population has to take refuge in a system of underground lairs beneath the surface. Drastic measures must be taken, but few are willing to put their lives on the line. Enter our self-proclaimed heroes–a high school brother and sister whose naïveté and rosy-eyed ambition make them feel invincible to any challenges which might come their way. They manage to reach the ice-sheathed wasteland that is now the surface of our planet in the hope of definitively setting the Earth on an orbital path safely out of reach of Jupiter’s ever-encroaching gravitational pull. The brother, Liu Peiqiang, is motivated by a personal vendetta that’s been festering in his soul since he was a child: when he was but 4 years old, his father had to abandon him to work on the environmentally hostile spaceships hovering above the planet. Liu’s brazen act of supposed heroism is motivated by a desire to redeem the loss of his father and prove himself worthy of his father’s heroic legacy.
Don’t let the film’s high-tech futuristic garb deceive you: at its core, the movie’s plot is a replica of the son-rescues-father trope which has been rehashed quite literally since time immemorial. The movie spends most of its time swerving and maneuvering around myriad pitfalls and setbacks, its characters conveniently averting disaster at the last minute every single time as they try to rescue the Earth from total annihilation (though of course there are a few obligatory deaths along the way).
The movie’s main vice is that it clearly prioritizes flamboyance above all else. So much of its energy goes into executing visually-overstimulating pyrotechnics that it sidelines virtually every other narrative element. The plot feels so threadbare and halfheartedly-conceived that it’s almost as though the filmmakers composed all the sensationalistic visual hijinks first and then decided to skimpily tie them together so that the film could at least appear to have some sort of form. Whenever the film provides backstory for its characters, it feels like a rushed and artificial attempt to try to make them three-dimensional without having to go through the process of organically layering them until they become palpably flesh-and-blood. In this way, “The Wandering Earth” is much like a sleazy but well-groomed hustler: it’s trying to use flashy flourishes to distract us from the poverty of content in all other respects.