Americans will have their eyes fixed on the Oscars being awarded this upcoming Sunday. Meanwhile, Chinese viewers are likely to continue flocking to the movies to see the Chinese sci-fi blockbuster that has dominated local box office for two consecutive weeks since it came out. “The Wandering Earth,” directed by Frant Gwo, is considered China’s first major science fiction film and pulled in a total of more than $600 million in its home country.
"The Wandering Earth" was a highly anticipated film for the Chinese audience, who appreciated the film's emphasis on Chinese values and were drawn into the film's vivid scenes.
"The film is an important milestone for the Chinese film industry," said Kelvin Jiang, a USC student majoring in business administration. "The special effects were spectacular, and it does not imitate American films, but perfectly touches on Chinese worldview and values such as community and socialism."
The film earned about twice the box office made by “Crazy Alien,” the second highest-grossing locally-made film in China that was also released on the first day of Lunar New Year. In addition, it surpassed the box-office gross of Marvel’s “Avengers: Infinity War” by $200 million.
Based on an award-winning short story by Chinese author Liu Cixin, "The Wandering Earth" takes place in the distant future and revolves around a group of Chinese astronauts who are trying to save the world from an imminently exploding sun that will devour Earth.
Stanley Rosen, a USC professor who specializes in Chinese politics and film, also enjoyed the movie, but he was impressed that it departed from the common themes of Chinese films, specifically patriotism and Communist Party, and instead, embraced those of Hollywood films, such as individuality, independence, courage and family relationships
Although space adventure sci-fi films may be nothing new for Western viewers who are familiar with Hollywood films, "The Wandering Earth" has opened up a new vision for the Chinese film industry, Rosen said.
"For a Chinese audience, I think there's a lot of pride taken in the fact that…the Chinese are now doing what Hollywood has always done best, and [besides] other big-budget science-fiction films [that are] coming out in China this year, they see this as a breakthrough," he said.
However, he said that there are some clear differences between "The Wandering Earth" and traditional Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster films.
"The notion of saving the planet rather than escaping the planet, which I think would be very different from the American film, where you'd be escaping the planet, [is like] the notion of taking your home with you," he said.
Despite the film’s popularity in China, it has only earned $3.8 million across 126 theaters in the U.S. to date. Rosen attributed language barriers to the reason behind the film’s relative lack of appeal to American and other Western viewers.
“The subtitles are very quick and a little bit complicated, so the visual and reading the English translation for the Chinese makes it very hard for Western audiences to appreciate what’s going on,” he said. “[The characters] have Chinese names, and for a lot of Westerners, they can’t distinguish Chinese names.”
In Los Angeles, only a limited number of theaters screened the "Wandering Earth." Many Chinese students who saw the film said they were amazed and touched.
“I think that Hollywood films focus too much on the concept of individual heroism, whereas ‘The Wandering Earth’ shows the power of human collectivism with different people on Earth working together towards a common goal,” said Jerry Chen, a USC student majoring in international relations.
Bo Chen, a student who graduated from the University of Rochester last year, even booked a private viewing room at an AMC theater in Webster, NY to show "The Wandering Earth." He had to drive for two hours to Syracuse, NY to see the movie premiere, but he wanted the film to be closer and more accessible to the university's Chinese students.
"The studio doesn't screen the film at every American theater because unless the theaters requests to screen it, the studio has to pay a fee," he said. "Moreover, the studio doesn't think that a lot of Americans would be interested in watching the movie, so there's no point in screening it everywhere."
Chen said that his friend referred him to an AMC manager, who agreed to screen the film. Chen then started a sign-up sheet for people who wanted to see the film.
“I wanted to see how many people would like to watch ‘The Wandering Earth’ so that we can book an entire viewing room for the movie,” he said. “If we don’t have enough people, it doesn’t make sense for me to pay for everything out of my own pocket.”
Tickets are being sold at $20.49 per person to cover the movie distribution fee and booking fee for the viewing room.
However, not all Chinese students are completely satisfied with "The Wandering Earth."
Zaozao He, a USC student majoring in communications, cried during the film, but said that the film still has a lot of room for improvement before it can reach her expectations for perfection.
"I think that the lack of richness in characterization, the occasional confusion in the plot, the imperfection in film and sound editing show the differences between 'The Wandering Earth' and the so-called 'Hollywood blockbusters'," she said. "The fundamental problem is not necessarily with the production technology, but more with the technical expression of specific scenes."
"The Wandering Earth" is still playing at multiple theaters in L.A., including AMC Sunset 5, AMC Atlantic Square, AMC Burbank 16, Edwards Alhambra Renaissance 14 & IMAX, and AMC Santa Anita 16.
Contributions by Vivian Zhuoran Wu