That muffled boom from Theatre 6 is China launching a war

opinion May 08, 2019 01:00

By Tulsathit Taptim
The Nation

The sun is in its death throes, expanding to vaporise neighbouring planets. People all around the world join hands to build giant thrusters to drive Earth out of its orbit on a path to a new star system. Yet the journey is fraught with unforeseen dangers, and in order to save humanity on the wandering Earth, a group of young people must fight for everyone’s survival.



It’s a movie, of course. And with a routine sci-fi plot of the kind seen in cinemas for decades. “The Wandering Earth” however is anything but routine. First and foremost, the heroes of this global blockbuster are Chinese.

 This is a big deal. We moviegoers are used to seeing US astronauts save the planet from forces of destruction. But can we name one movie in which villainous Americans are handed their comeuppance by foreign heroes. You can’t, can you?

Forget textbooks or religious teachings. We – the majority of human beings – grow up learning from the movies who are the good guys, the bad guys, the demons and the victims. Manage to make the world’s most popular movies and you rule the planet. Just make sure you market them well, choose the right plots and drum them into viewers’ subconscious. 

America is the undisputed champion here. Sci-fi superheroes the Avengers speak English and spend most of their time fending off attacks on US cities. Likewise, in Hollywood war movies, American soldiers invariably protect the innocent while battling the cruelty of foreign forces. 

Watch the Russian roulette scene in “The Deer Hunter” and you’ll suddenly develop a lifelong prejudice against the Vietcong. The award-winning “Argo” instils more fear about Iran than a year’s worth of editorials in Western media. “The Martian” is among many movies that put the idea in our heads that America won’t leave a single citizen behind. After suspicion grew that American mainstream media may be secretly serving the interests of the powers-that-be, along came “Spotlight”, the true-life story of the Boston Globe’s expose of sex abuse by Catholic clergy.

Of course this could be coincidental, but don’t underestimate the power of films to persuade, convince or even brainwash. Movies can keep rival religions at bay better than any preacher’s sermon. They can justify unjust wars by painting them as heroic and patriotic.  Films can demonise rival political systems more effectively than any textbook on ideology. Activists romanticise their causes not through what they read, but through what they watch. 

Which is why the release of “The Wandering Earth” marks a significant moment for the global imagination. First, saving the world is no longer the exclusive job of Americans. Second, this Chinese epic is likely the pioneer in a new wave of non-American global blockbusters. Third, its production values rival those of Hollywood, threatening the grip California’s “dream factory” holds on our imaginations.

America remains the master, but it is no longer the only country utilising its film industry as a global political mouthpiece. “The Wandering Earth” is available to watch on the global platform Netflix and has received favourable reviews on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes.

“After producing a string of sloppy, cringe-worthy sci-fi films,” one approving critic writes, “Chinese cinema has finally delivered one with awe-inspiring visual, and more surprisingly, a humanising story.”

Another viewer notes that it shuns the formulaic Hollywood plot of, “Superhero saves the day; everyone else is there to give a round of applause,” adding, “This movie brings a serious question to the audience: What are you going to do facing an unavoidable, irresistible disaster to our civilisation? All characters in the movie are ordinary people and everyone gives their answer with shining humanity.”

Netflix is still dominated by Hollywood products, with just a handful of Chinese movies available. However “The Wandering Earth” stands out among those few. It signals Hollywood’s winning formula is rebounding on the US, with the heroes changing from Americans to Chinese.

In the battle for global supremacy, we have given nuclear arsenals, stealth jetfighters and strike drones too much credit. The movie camera is more powerful than the bomb. US President Donald Trump is worried about China’s economic might, but if he wants to see the bigger picture he should watch “The Wandering Earth”.

Just a few years ago, the name Huawei was almost unknown, except perhaps for cheap and clunky tech gadgets. Huawei and “The Wandering Earth” might seem unlikely bedfellows, but in fact they illustrate a theme beloved of all moviemakers – American directors included.

The story of David and Goliath has been echoed down the centuries. And once again, it seems like the little guy may be about to conquer the giant.