By Zhang Lijuan
In a near future, the sun is aged and swollen and is on the verge of devouring Earth. To save the planet, humans build tens of thousands of planetary engines around the world to propel Earth out of the solar system for a new star system, leading humans and the Earth on a potential 2,500-year-long journey through the universe. During the process, countless numbers of people risk their lives to complete the mission, and their humanity is tested at the same time.
This is the plot of the Chinese sci-fi film The Wandering Earth.
The Wandering Earth emerged as a “black horse” hit after good reviews and a strong box office performance in 2019. Its monthly receipts exceeded 4.4 billion yuan (US$660 million). Titanic and Avatar director James Cameron, who signed up for Sina Weibo (Twitter-like Chinese app) in December 2018, endorsed the film with this remark: “Good luck with your space journey ofThe Wandering Earth. Good luck with the voyage of Chinese sci fi films.”
The success of The Wandering Earth has evoked wide discussion of science fiction movies, especially Chinese sci-fi film industry which was once relegated to a niche genre. For quite a long time, American sci-fi blockbusters have been very successful in the Chinese market, starkly contrasting the obscurity of the previously released Chinese sci-fi films.
Liu Cixin, China’s most beloved science fiction author, stated in an interview after he was honored with the Hugo Award in 2015 for his science fiction novel The Three-Body Problem: “Our society doesn’t like people who are addicted to science fiction. If you are obsessed with it, other people will think you are naive. In an industrial sector like mine, in particular, my boss can tolerate mistakes at work, but cannot tolerate childish inclinations. If you are in your 40s and still enjoy science fiction so much that you devote considerable time into it, you leave a poor impression with other people who will consider you different and abnormal.”
According to Liu, the population of working Chinese science fiction writers is relatively small, and only 20 to 30 people have managed to continue writing and publishing science fiction for a considerable length of time. “One time I attended a meeting organized by the China Writers Association, and I was the only author of science fiction among about 3,000 writers participating in the conference,” Liu revealed. “Even after The Three-Body Problem became a best-seller, the number of Chinese authors writing science fiction has remained small.”
“Science fiction films have special traits,” opined The Wandering Earth producer and writer Gong Ge’er. “They have a direct relationship with a country’s development and national strength. Without Chinese astronauts waving to TV viewers in space, Chinese audience would have a hard time accepting The Wandering Earth as realistic. Only when our national strength reaches the current level of development will movie-goers develop a sense of trust in the future world illustrated by sci-fi movies.”
Guo Fan, director of The Wandering Earth, cited China’s Chang’e-4 probe touching down on the far side of the moon in January as a real life event that would enable spectators to embrace Chinese people in space. If this movie were shot 10 or 20 years ago, according to Guo, such a scenario would have little credibility. Both Gong and Guo agree that sci-fi films require strong support from a country’s national strength.
Indeed, looking back at the history of global sci-fi films, it’s easy to find that Star Wars represented the rise of American sci-fi films in the 1970s and the emergence of sci-fi films in Japan was in the early 1990s. These two periods were eras in which the comprehensive national power of these respective countries advanced by leaps and bounds.
“Chinese movies have always been in an evolutionary process, and filmmakers have been exploring possibilities,” added Gong. “Today, producers catering to the Chinese film market can afford to invest a big budget into a sci-fi movie like The Wandering Earth, which won recognition from viewers and laid a foundation for the coming generations of Chinese filmmakers.”
“The world in our movie is set 50 or 60 years in the future” is the first title card of The Wandering Earth, which goes on to explain the worldview structure of the film. Following the basic setting of the novel from whence it was adapted, the world depicted in The Wandering Earth is not very unlike the present. Both technology and lifestyles in the film aim to remain as close as possible to the real life, creating a stronger immediacy for movie-goers. Even fantasticconcepts such as underground city, frozen planetary surface and planetary engine devices are portrayed as close as possible to the current world, keeping the audience attached to the story and engrossed in the film.
Guo Fan invited professors of astrophysics from the Chinese Academy of Sciences to compile annals ranging from 1997 to 2075 to give him ideas for props such as a compressed vegetable package, a crane mouth-shaped excavator and a heavy nuclide fusion reactor. They also speculated on natural phenomena that could appear in the future such as a gravity earthquake, day without a sunset and snow fog.
“Basically, you have to build a new world, but this world has to have believable rules and consistency,” stressed Guo Fan.
In order to better engineer the special effects, the production team divided scenes involving FX into different sections: the underground city, the Earth’s surface, planetary engines and space. Each section adopted a different design.
For scenes set in the underground city, the team endeavored to simulate regular life, so the design was as current as possible. For the Earth surface scene, the frozen surface gave the planet a completely different look, but most names ofplaces were kept as well as famous urban architecture to build connection to movie goers. For scenes in space, the movie featured more future technology and a look much closer to standard sci-fi films. This division helped to standardize production of special effects, and modular production follows standard film industry practices worldwide.
Many scenes in The Wandering Earth are far from real life, such as planetary engines and Earth passing by Jupiter. Those scenes required the special effects production team and art team to keep advancing and constantly improving their techniques right up to the final cut.
“Many of the FX were modified more than a hundred times,” revealed Guo in an interview. “One shot was modified 249 times before the final version.” Although Guo cited the figures nonchalantly, the volume of modifications truly reflected the hard work of the special effects production team. Thanks to those painstaking processes, The Wandering Earth was warmly received.
“I hope the audience sees a child who has just learned to speak and will grow up gradually,” Guo Fan concluded in a special on the visual effects of The Wandering Earth. The behind-the-scenes documentary captured much of the exploration involved in producing The Wandering Earth, illustrating how China’s sci-fi films are starting from scratch and just part of a growing process.
The journey for China’s sci-fi films has just begun, and The Wandering Earth is an early milestone. Many more and better sci-fi movies by Chinese filmmakers should be expected in the future.
Awaiting the Era
“Only a successful Chinese sci-fi global blockbuster can herald the ‘dawn of Chinese sci-fi movies,’” declared Jiang Xiaoyuan, chair professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) and the first dean of SJTU’s School of History and Culture of Science, in his book Jiang Xiaoyuan Science Fiction Movie Guide.
According to Jiang, The Wandering Earth is successful enough to mark the start of the first year of Chinese sci-fi films. “Success means being successful commercially,” he elaborated. “A good box office performance evidences the success of The Wandering Earth and its popularity among movie-goers.”
Commercial success brings obvious benefits such as making future projects more attractive to investors. “More funding will create opportunities for an even better film to emerge, and we should be happy to see that happen,” admitted Jiang Xiaoyuan.
“The Wandering Earth is the first big-budget visual effects-heavy Chinese sci-fi film,” noted Gong Ge’er in an interview. “We are not qualified to define the first year of Chinese sci-fi films. Only after a few more films of the same size in terms of budget and box office emerge will the era have truly arrived.”
Zhang Miao, general manager of the film department of Beijing Jingxi Culture & Tourism Co. Ltd., an investor in The Wandering Earth, predicted that a number of good sci-fi movies would come out to mark the first year of Chinese sci-fi films. “Spectators flocked to The Wandering Earth in early 2019, and we are convinced that in the near future even more fascinating Chinese sci-fi movies will emerge to signal the arrival of the first year of Chinese sci-fi films,” he added.
The success of The Wandering Earth has raised expectations for the development of Chinese sci-fi films. Many believe that the domestic sci-fi film market will grow rapidly. But is such sentiment more hope than reality?
At the China Science Fiction Conference in November 2018, a report issued by the Shenzhen-based Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) noted that China’s sci-fi industry recorded output value of more than 14 billion yuan (US$2 billion) in 2017, and in the first half of 2018, the industry achieved nearly 10 billion yuan (US$1.5 billion) in output value.
In the first half of 2018, the combined box office for sci-fi films in China was 9.5 billion yuan (US$1.4 billion), but China-made movies only contributed 890 million yuan (US$132.3 million) to the total sci-fi box office, according tothe report.
Gong Ge’er conceded that Chinese sci-fi films only occupy a very small market share of the entire movie market, which does not match China’s position as the world’s second-largest film market. Chinese sci-fi movies account for a relatively small share of the film industry, mainly because of a shortage of quality works and the lack of the necessary industrial development chain. China’s science fiction industry is still dominated by publishing houses today. Chinese sci-fi films becoming more fully developed will drive more diversified development.
SUSTech’s report also noted that at present, film studios maintain an ambivalent attitude towards the prospects of the Chinese sci-fi film market. Alongside the large necessary investment and little successful experience, China lacks a mature sci-fi film industry like that of Hollywood. Major difficulties still inhibit production of China-made sci-fi movies.
“The success of The Wandering Earth will drive the domestic sci-fi film market to grow rapidly, but the most important aspect of fast growth is not necessarily focused on movie production or box office, but it should emphasize the audience’s increasing trust and Chinese filmmakers’ consistent endeavors,” commented Gong. “Specifically, movie goers are developing greater expectations and tolerance for China-made sci-fi movies, so Chinese filmmakers are becoming bound to only release top-notch films.”
From the perspective of Gong Ge’er, the success of Chinese sci-fi movies will create a better environment for science fiction writers, who will expand their imaginations and creativity to continuously provide quality content. The success of The Wandering Earth is likely overblown for themoment, but big commercial success inevitably attracts more capital to even the most neglected genres.
Chinese sci-fi films are ready to move forward.