Both “The Wandering Earth” and its sequel are flashy, state-approved cornball spectacles about humanity’s resilience (especially the Chinese). Both movies were produced with gargantuan budgets that would make even James Cameron blink, and they both look fantastic thanks to director Frant Gwo’s eye for panoramic scope and paperback cover-worthy details. The main difference between these two blockbusters is that the protagonists of “The Wandering Earth II” must repeatedly choose to be hopeful despite perpetually impending disasters, each one of which is neatly labeled and foregrounded with pulpy on-screen text like “The Lunar Crisis in 12 hours” and “Nuclear explosion in 3 hours.”
In this way, Gwo (“The Sacrifice”) and his five credited co-writers succeed in refocusing our attention on scenes of ticking-clock suspense, sandwiched between syrupy—and mostly satisfying—melodramatic interludes, where square-jawed astronauts and UEG diplomats struggle to do what we know is a foregone conclusion.
Most of “The Wandering Earth II” follows the superhuman efforts needed to jumpstart the Moving Mountain Project, the mission to first build and then deploy the globe-shifting engines needed to push the Earth out of harm’s way. The UEG’s Chinese delegation, led by the paternal diplomat Zhezhi Zhou (Li Xuejian), recommends prioritizing the Moving Mountain Project instead of the Digital Life Project. This radical initiative would transfer human participants’ consciousnesses into artificially intelligent computer programs. Some Digital Life supporters try to sabotage the Moving Mountain Project, including a deadly attack on the Space Elevator transportation ships that send UEG representatives from the Earth to the Moon.
Nobody living through the events of “The Wandering Earth II” knows what we know: That the Moving Mountain project succeeds and eventually becomes the Wandering Earth project, which comes under threat by a HAL 9000-esque artificial intelligence (A.I.) named MOSS in the first film. Still, multiple scientists, government officials, and space adventurers—mostly Chinese—believe in their work’s vital necessity, whether they’re punching out saboteurs or detonating one of a couple hundred nuclear devices scattered around the moon. There’s a lot of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing along the way, mostly from English and Russian-speaking UEG members, all of whom speak in stilted, poorly dubbed dialogue. But Chinese astronauts, like “The Wandering Earth” co-leads Liu Peiqiang (“Wolf Warrior 2” star Wu Jing) and Han Duoduo (Wang Zhi), always prove Zhou’s slogan-simple maxim: “In times of crisis, unity above all.”