“The Wandering Earth,” directed by Frant Gwo, takes place in a future where the people of Earth must flee their sun as it swells into a red giant. Thousands of engines — the first of them constructed in Hangzhou, one of China’s tech hubs — propel the entire planet toward a new solar system, while everyone takes refuge from the cold in massive underground cities. On the surface, the only visible reminders of the past are markers of China’s might. The Shanghai Tower, the Oriental Pearl Tower and a stadium for the Shanghai 2044 Olympics all thrust out of the ice, having apparently survived the journey’s tsunamis, deep freeze and cliff-collapsing earthquakes.
The movie is China’s first big-budget sci-fi epic, and its production was ambitious, involving some 7,000 workers and 10,000 specially-built props. Audience excitement was correspondingly huge: Nearly half a million people wrote reviews of the film on Chinese social network site Douban. Having earned over $600 million in domestic sales, “The Wandering Earth” marks a major achievement for the country’s film industry.
It is also a major achievement for the Chinese government.
Since opening up the country’s film market in 2001, the Chinese government has aspired to learn from Hollywood how to make commercially appealing films, as I detail in my book “Hollywood Made in China.” From initial private offerings for state media companies, to foreign investment in films, studios and theme parks, the government allowed outside capital and expertise to grow the domestic commercial film industry — but not at the expense of government oversight. This policy’s underlying aim was to expand China’s cultural clout and political influence.
Until recently, Hollywood films dominated the country’s growing box office. That finally changed in 2015, with the release of major local blockbusters “Monster Hunt” and “Lost in Hong Kong.” The proliferation of homegrown hits signaled that the Chinese box office profits no longer depend on Hollywood studio films — sending an important message to foreign trade negotiators and studios.
These hits include a growing genre of popular commercial films that set out to portray China as a virtuous global power. “Wolf Warrior 2,” which became the highest-grossing movie in Chinese box office history when it was released in 2017, follows a retired People’s Liberation Army special forces operative, supported by the Chinese Navy, who saves Chinese workers in an unspecified country in Africa from Western terrorists. The highest-grossing film in 2018, “Operation Red Sea,” was about the navy’s mission in Yemen.
Muscular nationalism is also common in American films, of course: In “Armageddon,” from 1998, U.S. leadership saved the world from natural calamity; more recently, “Interstellar” modeled American interplanetary exploration. Washington, however, has nowhere near the level of influence over American studio filmmaking that the Chinese government has over China’s film studios — and it doesn’t claim as much credit for Hollywood’s successes.
In China, this relationship has always been close. Even as China’s film industry leveraged foreign money and talent, the government’s oversight progressively tightened. In 2013, China fused two of its major media regulators to centralize control of content. President Xi Jinping’s New Year’s address from 2014 urged Chinese citizens to tell “Chinese stories” around the world. In March 2018, media regulation in China came under cabinet-level control. Most recently, earlier this month, top Chinese film regulator Wang Xiaohui laid out a plan for China to become a “strong film power” by 2035, with international influence commensurate to the country’s status. Wang outlined the need for more films themed around “the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” and set out an annual goal of 100 Chinese films bringing in a box office revenue of $15 million or more.
“The Wandering Earth” offers a template for China’s patriotic film industry ambitions. It’s also a prototype for exporting an image of China as the leader of the future. Released just a month after China landed on the far side of the moon, the film is an engaging spectacle which presents a clear model for the country’s ascent: one invested in technological advancement and the sacrifices of its people. And where “Wolf Warrior 2” failed to achieve wider recognition, in part because of its cartoonishly unfavorable portrayals of both Westerners and Africans, “The Wandering Earth” is on track to become that elusive thing: the global Chinese blockbuster. Though its international box office has been relatively small, the film has a lucrative deal with Netflix for worldwide distribution.
The movie portrays a ragtag group of Chinese upstarts who save the planet by figuring out how to divert it from its crash into Jupiter. The rest of the world, listening to the AI system that tells them hope is lost, waits to die like sheep — until a stirring speech by a Chinese schoolgirl unites the nations in hope. When even those collective efforts seem about to fall short, a lone Chinese astronaut has the courage (and the command of the international spaceship) to commit the last, selfless act that propels the planet to its new solar system. In this fantasy, only Chinese leaders can be relied on in a crisis. Only Chinese engineers know how to effectively manage the complex systems of the future.
This narrative befits a country eager to assert the global ambitions of its film industry. The plot also neatly encapsulates the government’s vision: China’s present is only prologue to its future technological dominance. That technological dominance is an unquestionable good, saving the earth and its people from imminent destruction. And in “The Wandering Earth,” the United States is almost entirely absent.