Unless you just cram The Thee-Body Problem into somebody's hand and force them to immediately read it, it's hard to convey just how big Chinese author Liu Cixin's ideas are. The first in the award-winning "Remembrance of Earth Past" trilogy, Three-Body begins a story that's about nothing less than the past and future of the universe. What starts as a high-concept—China discovers distant extraterrestrial life, distant extraterrestrial life decides that hey, Earth looks like a pretty nice place to live—sets off a generations-spanning, galaxy-twisting saga where the concepts, be they philosophical or scientific or emotional, are overwhelming and unforgettable. Reading the "Remembrance of Earth's Past" is the closest I've ever come in fiction to replicating the feelings and ideas in the work of Carl Sagan—though Liu's outlook is... ah, shall we say, decidedly less optimistic.
I say all this not to convince you to read The Three-Body Problem (though you should, and if I can't convince you, maybe Obama can), but also to make sure we're all on the same page here: Liu doesn't fuck around, and his work can be profoundly beautiful, strange, and horrifying. Now one of his other works—the story The Wandering Earth—is a massively ambitious and massively successful Chinese blockbuster. The film quietly and unexpectedly opened in Seattle last weekend, and seeing it on the big screen is... something else, in ways both good and bad.
At its worst, The Wandering Earth: The Movie! feels like any number of generic, CGI-bloated American sci-fi blockbusters—and in scenes like these, it's hard not to recognized (and be bored by) similarities to everything from Michael Bay's Armageddon to Roland Emmerich's 2012. But at its best, The Wandering Earth captures a bit of the brain-stretching majesty and humbling intelligence of Liu's writing. Sometimes The Wandering Earth is annoying and goofy; at others, the film approaches profundity. A few times, these two things happen in the same scene.
Those tonal shifts aren't uncommon with mainstream Chinese films—there's often something of a broad-stroked, schizophrenic quality to them, as if every film needs to be everything to every viewer—but in something as epic as The Wandering Earth, the shifts feels particularly noticeable. Liu's story sees the sun expanding, threatening to engulf Earth; in response, humankind builds massive "Earth engines" that span the equator and jut from every continent. When turned on, these engines dislodge Earth from its orbit—slowwwwly pushing the entire planet from its current solar system into one that, when reached tens of thousands of years in the future, will hopefully be slightly less lethal. The problems, however, kick in just a few decades after launch: As Earth moves past Jupiter, a "gravitational spike" pulls the planet into the gas giant's gravity well, all but ensuring Earth will be torn apart by Jupiter's gravity before it even leaves the solar system.
Liu's taste for both galaxy-spanning spectacle (Earth as a literal spaceship!) and consequential science (away from the sun, the surface of the "wandering Earth" becomes an uninhabitable, ice-covered hellscape, and that's not to mention how our stopping the the planet's rotation results in tsunamis that wipe out most of humankind) are a great fit for the big screen—and director Frant Gwo and an army of screenwriters supplement them by filling the film with every cliché that applies, for better and worse, to science-fiction and disaster movies. A wide-ranging group of bickering but earnest people are the only ones who can save the planet; there are grand speeches about love and intention and sacrifice; family bonds are tested even as the fate of Earth hangs in the balance. Oh, and: giant lasers, strained excuses for action sequences, frantic countdown clocks, city-flattening catastrophes, slapstick "comic" relief, and, somehow, even a car crash or two. Also, a very ill-advised rape joke? And some puke humor? Not sure what else to call it, really, other than "puke humor."
But every once in a while—whether its the characters' traversal of a silent Shanghai that's been enveloped by ice, or the lonely sight of a mostly dead Earth, meager engines burning, hanging in the endless void of space—The Wandering Earth feels grand, beautiful, and desolate, with a perspective that can only come from a straightforward accounting of humankind's impermanence and meaninglessness. First and foremost, The Wandering Earth is a disaster movie, but in shots where Jupiter looms and the Earth engines light, or moments where day-to-day life continues beneath the surface of a now-frozen planet, or when individuals from a slew of countries (but, you know, mostly China) work in insane hope against a deadly, apathetic universe, there's something bigger that hints at what makes Liu Cixin's writing so astonishing, horrifying, and wondrous. The Wandering Earth is far from perfect, but even at its silliest, it still feels smarter and more ambitious than most American blockbusters. If you're amenable to Liu's Big Ideas, or if you just want to behold some widescreen planetary chaos, you could do a lot worse.