China isn’t typically known for its science fiction blockbusters, but a new trailer for an upcoming film called The Wandering Earth has all the hallmarks of a big, Hollywood-style genre movie: it features a dramatic story of the Earth in peril, complete with eye-popping scenes of spaceships escaping Earth.
The Wandering Earth is based on a story by Cixin Liu, the author best known for The Three-Body Problem, and, more recently, Ball Lightning. In the original story, scientists discovered that the sun is on the verge of turning into a red giant, and when it does, it’ll expand beyond the orbit of Mars, incinerating all of the solar system’s potentially habitable planets. They concoct a desperate plan to move Earth out of the solar system to a new star, Proxima Centauri.
The story begins with the early life of a young boy who was born just after engineers stopped Earth’s rotation. It follows him as the world prepares to leave the solar system. The engineers push Earth into an exaggerated orbit, build vast cities under the planetary surface, and escape the doomed system before the Sun expands. Like The Three-Body Problem and its sequels, it takes a global perspective on the threat to Earth and hearkens back to science fiction’s “Golden Age” stories when scientists engineered big solutions to formidable problems. Liu shows off the drastic changes Earth undergoes over decades: massive temperature fluctuations, natural disasters, societal problems, and the beauty of watching Jupiter pass overhead.
The Chinese film industry clearly recognized that the story is perfect fodder for a science fiction blockbuster. The adaptation, directed by Guo Fan, is slated to be released in February 2019, and it’ll be China’s first big-budget science fiction film. The trailer shows humanity fleeing the Earth’s surface as temperatures plunge, and it suggests the unrest that arises in the aftermath. A teaser from earlier this year shows off a high-stakes scene on board a space station.
On a global scale, China is becoming an increasingly important player in the film industry. Its growing middle class has seen the rise of theater chains across the country, and Chinese audiences have become an important part of US films’ successes. Projects like Iron Man 3 specifically filmed additional scenes for the Chinese release, and films like S.M.A.R.T. Chase and The Meg bring together Chinese and American investors, casts, and crews in an attempt to equally court Chinese and American audiences.
The ambitions and budgets in the Chinese film industry are steadily growing. The Great Wall — a massive Chinese / American co-production that gained some notoriety in the US for casting Matt Damon — was budgeted at $150 million, while Bleeding Steel, a $65 million Jackie Chan cyberpunk thriller, made global headlines by shooting in Australia, with scenes set atop the Sydney opera house. Just as America is looking to make inroads into the Chinese market, Chinese filmmakers are increasingly looking for global appeal and international-scale releases.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, The Wandering Earth is China’s “first full-scale interstellar” film. Chinese science fiction author and screenwriter Anna Wu says science fiction “is a new challenge for the Chinese film industry.” While there have been numerous fantasy films, she told The Verge that studios and investors have hesitated when it comes to the genre because of the perception that they need both a high level of special effects and to rake in lots of money in order to be successful. Chinese filmmakers have made some high-profile attempts at the genre, but they’ve stumbled along the way. An adaptation of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body trilogy was filmed in 2015, only to sit on a shelf because of post-production structure and budgeting problems. And while there have been persistent reports that Amazon wants to adapt the series (for a mind-boggling $1 billion), Chinese studio YooZoo says it’s the only rights holder for any potential TV or film production.
Still, Wu notes that within China, “there is a growing acceptance of science fiction,” and that as the economy has grown, people are “getting busier, wealthier and more stressed,” which creates a perfect environment for new escapist genre film and television. The Wandering Earth, she says, is highly anticipated. “Everyone is looking forward to it.” However, she says, “I am also very concerned about the box office earnings, which will affect the investment situation of [future] Chinese science fiction films.”