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Envisioning Global Governance in Chinese Sci-fi Blockbusters: Crazy Alien (2019) and The Wandering Earth (2019)

In: Studies in World Cinema
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Xiao Yang Faculty of Arts, School of Film, Media, and Journalism, Monash University, Caulfield, VIC, Australia

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Abstract

This article examines two Chinese sci-fi blockbusters, Crazy Alien and The Wandering Earth, under a theoretical framework of global governance and its variation in Chinese state rhetoric. The article explores how the notion of global governance in China is echoed, reconfigured, and mediated in these two films via their depiction of China’s leadership in solving fictionalized futuristic global challenges. It argues that while Crazy Alien criticizes the present, neoliberal global governance, The Wandering Earth envisages a new global governance system led by China. These two films provide case studies of sci-fi blockbusters produced in a non-Western context and illustrate the convergence of Chinese politics with its sci-fi film production.

Science fiction elements, such as futuristic settings and advanced technology, first appeared in Chinese cinema as early as 1938 in a comedy film titled Visiting Shanghai After Sixty Years (Yang Xiaozhong, 1938). While most sci-fi films in China in the past century were low-budget productions that often integrated other genres like comedy and horror (Berra 2013), Crazy Alien (Ning Hao, 2019) and The Wandering Earth (Frant Gwo, 2019) ushered in a new stage of Chinese sci-fi films – a stage of Hollywoodized blockbusters with big budgets and immersive visual spectacles generated by computer technologies (Yang 2019). This new stage is manifest not only in these two films’ high box office grosses in mainland China – 4.69 billion rmb for The Wandering Earth and 2.21 billion rmb for Crazy Alien (Statista 2023) – but also in the emergence of subsequent sci-fi blockbusters, such as Moon Man (Zhang Chiyu, 2022), Mozart from Space (Chen Sicheng, 2022), and The Wandering Earth 2 (Frant Gwo, 2023). The Wandering Earth has been studied in research articles with particular regard to its incorporation of Confucianism and nationalism. Zhu (2020), for example, insightfully argues that the way The Wandering Earth adapts the original novella, altering a symbolic patricide to a confirmation of patrilineality, resonates with the usage of Confucianism in the official ideology. And Jeroen de Kloet (2022) highlights the nationalist sentiment in The Wandering Earth through its emphasis on Chineseness and patriarchy. By contrast, as of 2023, studies of Crazy Alien are relatively limited and mostly about the translation of its subtitles and its mix of sci-fi and comedy (Zhao, Chen, and Li 2019; Chen 2019).

Taking a different perspective from previous studies, this article concentrates on the relationship between cinema and foreign policy, examining how Crazy Alien and The Wandering Earth mediate and reproduce a Chinese notion of global governance. Promulgated in Western academia after the end of the Cold War, global governance originally refers to the way governmental and non-governmental entities and institutions collaborate to tackle international issues (McGrew and Held 2002). In this sense, global governance does not mean that there should be, or has already been a “global government.” On the contrary, it means that there should be more than one entity participating in global governance, and that cooperation is needed to solve problems, not least global-wide challenges such as climate change, immigration, and global pandemics. Global governance has, however, been characterized by asymmetrical power relations where the United States play a dominant role (Barnett and Duvall 2004), but emerging post-Cold War powers such as China, Russia, India, and Brazil are increasingly shaping the current global governance apparatus.

In China, the concept of global governance was introduced in official discourses during the 2010s under President Xi Jinping’s administration. The Chinese concept of global governance, however, varies from its Western origin in that it emphasizes the leadership of China in global affairs. China’s endeavors to take a lead in global governance have been sparked by the fact that when trying to integrate into the global status quo, China still found itself excluded by the Western world to some extent. For example, despite being a member of the wto for 15 years, China has yet to be acknowledged as a “market economy” country due to its socialist characteristics (Breslin and Xiao 2018, 327; Fan 2017, 81). Instead of being strangled by the rules made by the Western world, China has, as a result, chosen to pursue a more active and leading role in global governance for its own benefit.

Xi believes that China should not be constrained by the globalization rules set by Western countries and that China’s engagement in governing global affairs is essential for the realization of the “Chinese Dream” – “global governance relates to making rules and deciding the directions of the global order and global system” (Cpcnews 2017). These points were reiterated during the G20 summit in Hangzhou, a group study within the Political Bureau of the ccp Central Committee in 2015, and the second group study of the Political Bureau in 2016 (Cpcnews 2017). In his talk on the 2016 New Year’s Eve, Xi announced that “The international community wants to hear China’s voice and see China’s solutions” (Xinhuanet 2015). Projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to boost economic cooperation between China and Asia, Europe, and Africa, were initiated to meet the state’s demand for economic development and global influence, while in the government’s rhetoric, the primary aim was to facilitate a win-win mutual cooperation based on shared interests (Liu and Dunford 2016).

The policy of asserting Chinese global leadership was fueled by the Sino-US conflicts of the late 2010s. Originating from the Trump administration’s dissatisfaction with China’s entrance into local markets with low-price manufactures and cheap labors, the Sino-US trade war started in 2018 and included both protectionist measures by the US against Chinese imports and China’s tit-for-tat responses with regard to their US imports (Liu and Woo 2018). The conflict motivated China to further participate in the global economy and to pursue a leading role in global issues, both strategies seen as “key factors balancing against the bitter feelings Chinese harbor toward the Trump administration for disrespectful treatment during the course of trade negotiations” (Boylan, McBeath, and Wang 2021, 36). Against this background, a proactive strategy (aka “wolf warrior diplomacy”) toward the US became one of the distinctive traits of China’s foreign policy (Sullivan and Wang 2023; Yang 2023).

The topic of global governance is new in Chinese sci-fi films where it has not been addressed before The Wandering Earth and Crazy Alien. For instance, in Berra’s (2013) retrospective of sci-fi films in mainland China, none of the films analyzed, such as Death Ray on the Coral Island (Zhong Hongmei, 1980), Dislocation (Huang Jianxin, 1986), and All Tomorrow’s Parties (Yu Lik-wai, 2003), emphasize how China should govern global issues. By contrast, the narratives of both Crazy Alien and The Wandering Earth focus on China’s crucial role in resolving global challenges: in Crazy Alien, with regard to building diplomatic relations with an extra-terrestrial civilization and prevent Earth from alien invasion; in The Wandering Earth, in connection with the challenges involved in circumventing a possible extinction of human beings and moving Earth to a new habitat in the universe.

Arguing that the storytelling in Crazy Alien and The Wandering Earth is infused with the Chinese concept of global governance, this article adds to a multifaceted understanding of Chinese sci-fi films with an emphasis on how they have been shaped by the state’s political agendas. In this way, it provides case studies of the interplay between China’s politics and mainstream film production. At the same time, it highlights the dynamics of hegemony and resistance in the realm of sci-fi blockbusters, which has traditionally been dominated by Hollywood (Germann 2005; Ibbi 2013). While the resistance against Hollywood’s cultural hegemony can be observed in world cinemas in the past century, evidenced by European art cinema movements and protectionist approaches in the film industries of non-Western countries (Hildenbrand and Farias 2019; Ikhsano and Stellarosa 2015), Crazy Alien and The Wandering Earth demonstrate this resistance in terms of alternative values and worldviews. This article argues that although Crazy Alien and The Wandering Earth bear similarities with Hollywood sci-fi films regarding visual spectacles and narrative, their de-Westernized values make them more than just variations on the Hollywood sci-fi paradigm. Addressing a globalized theme, namely the imagined apocalypse that calls for the participation and collaboration of multiple powers, these two films offer a unique perspective on global governance, challenging the Western-centred neoliberal world order.

Sci-fi Blockbusters and Chinese Foreign Policy

Cinema has been a useful tool for enhancing soft power and disseminating political ideologies and foreign policies of both Western world powers and the emerging powers in the Global South (Dennison 2021). A collaboration between Hollywood, the US military, and cia, for instance, has ensured that the image of the United States in Hollywood films has changed with the state’s different foreign policies during the Second World War, the Cold War, and the war on terror (Guan, Chagas-Bastos and Nishijima 2023; Mustafa, Noureen and Jabeen 2020; Redmond 2017). And India, an emerging global power, regards its film industry and the dissemination of Bollywood films to international markets as an important part of the state’s foreign policy (Thussu 2016).

When it comes to the confluence of Chinese sci-fi blockbusters and the state’s conception of global governance, it should be noted that the Chinese state plays a key role in shaping the production of sci-fi blockbusters. For one thing, big-budget sci-fi blockbusters demonstrate China’s ability to craft films with immersive visual spectacles, primarily using made-in-China special effects and computer-generated images (cgi) (Chan 2019). Additionally, they symbolize China’s rapid industrialization since the late 1970s and its emergence as the world’s second-largest economy in 2010 (Barboza 2010). But sci-fi blockbusters also intermingle with China’s pursuit of soft power and are consistent with the state’s rhetoric, such as the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and the “Chinese Dream.” The Wandering Earth was, for example, initiated by the China Film Group, the largest state-owned film enterprise. The state’s official endorsement of sci-fi films as a means to enhance Chinese soft power is further underscored by official documents promoting sci-fi film production, including the “Guidelines on Promoting the Development of Science Fiction Films,” jointly issued by the China Film Administration and the Chinese Association for Science and Technology in August 2020, and the “14th Five-Year Development Plan of Chinese Film” in 2021 (Davis 2020; Xu 2021).

Both released during the period of the US-China antagonism, Crazy Alien and The Wandering Earth nationalistically reject US hegemony and assert China’s leadership in their portrayal of China’s foreign policy. As I will demonstrate in the following sections, Crazy Alien ridicules the neoliberal global governance status quo under US hegemony. The Wandering Earth, on the other hand, visualizes “what will happen when China leads global governance” in a futuristic world, deliberately minimizing the role of the United States in governing global issues.

Crazy Alien: A Critique of the Status Quo

Crazy Alien (2019) is directed by Ning Hao, a filmmaker known for his black comedy films featuring “illicit activities, morbidity or cruel circumstances (such as wars),” and “the anxiety, suffering and despair shared by characters from lower social strata” (Liu 2018, 158). The film begins with a failed mission to establish diplomatic relations with aliens, led by astronauts from “Armanika”, a fictional superpower that clearly parodies America.1 As a result of the failure, an alien spaceship crashes into a Chinese theme park filled with replicas of famous monuments from around the world. It is here that the alien encounters the film’s two protagonists – Geng Hao, an underprivileged monkey trainer, and his friend, Shen Tengfei. Geng mistakes the alien for a rare monkey and tries to train it for performance. Meanwhile, Armanikan agents seek the alien across the world, trying to figure out its location. The movie reaches its climax when the alien, frustrated by human beings, intends to destroy Earth. However, it is Geng Hao’s monkey training skills that come to the rescue. In the end, it is not the US but two under-class Chinamen who save the world.

Crazy Alien presents a critique of the US-centred global governance, starting with its depiction of America’s global hegemony via a series of satirical stereotypes. The opening scene suggests that Armanika is the only country able to build a diplomatic relationship with the aliens. As high-ranking Armanikan officials watch the process on television, one of them asserts that, in comparison to the potential risks of exposing human genes to an alien culture, it is more important to be the first country to form a partnership with them. The man in the middle, similar in appearance to Donald Trump, agrees with the official, “We are the only ones who can represent the human race.” This is followed by a cut to outer space where an astronaut introduces himself to the aliens: “I’m Captain Zack Andrews of the United States of Armanika, the most advanced nation on planet Earth. On behalf of all of humanity, I’m here to present you with our dna.”

The American hegemony in economics, politics, and formidable hard power is further exhibited through the plot in which a team of agents search for the lost alien around the world by means of global-positioning technology, helicopters, and submarines. Additionally, the Armanikan agents’ entrance into several countries including Brazil, Russia, and Egypt can be interpreted as a violation of other countries’ sovereignty and an allusion to the idea of the US as “global policeman” (Yu 2019). Likewise, discovering that the alien is in China with Geng Hao and Shen Tengfei, the agents hurry there and arrest them. It is improbable that a foreign authority like Armanika would be allowed to detain two Chinese citizens within Chinese territory, but the sense of US hegemony and the country’s overwhelming political influence is conveyed through this scenario.

Hegemony extends beyond the economic and political realms; it is also evident in the global cultural sphere, where the United States wields both economic and cultural dominance in the Gramscian sense. To Gramsci (1916), economic hegemony alone does not automatically lead to cultural hegemony. The ruling group must also “develop a world view that appeals to a wide range of other groups within the society, and they must be able to claim with at least some plausibility that their particular interests are those of society at large” (Lears 1985, 571). Similarly, cultural imperialism theory criticizes Western, particularly American culture’s dominant position, and warns against the marginalization or extinction of local cultures as a consequence of global cultural homogeneity (Tomlinson 1991; Smandych 2005).

Through its depiction of the Asian communities in America and the underprivileged protagonists in China, Crazy Alien visualizes the dominance of US culture. In the scene introducing John, the film’s leading American agent played by Tom Pelphrey, an Asian American in a self-help group is talking about his drinking problem and claiming that the Captain America T-shirt he is wearing empowers him to quit drinking. The symbolic Marvel superhero Captain America, regarded as a spiritual leader by the Asian character, indicates that American culture has been accepted and followed by other ethnic and cultural groups. Also, the film highlights how modernization and commercialization, both important components of the US-led neoliberal culture, have permeated Chinese society. For example, Geng Hao’s monkey shows face an uncertain future because they cannot earn a profit. The camera exhibits that Geng’s audiences, little in number, focus on their smartphones (a result of the Internet revolution and consumerism) rather than the monkey performance (a local, unmodernized culture), a scene indicating that monkey shows are not attractive in modern Chinese society. The park manager’s intention of replacing Geng’s performance court with a hot-pot restaurant demonstrates the impact of commercialism and money fetishism – he wants to maximize the profit of that area by investing in more profitable services, caring little about Geng’s career. In this sense, Geng Hao’s awkwardness as an underclass monkey trainer results from the capital-driven cultural imperialism and marginalization of local culture.

The black humor style of Crazy Alien treats the bitterness of Geng Hao as something to be laughed at. However, what generates more laughter seems to be Armanika’s failure to save the world, in stark contrast to its claim to being the “most advanced nation on planet Earth.” The film frequently mocks the US, with regard to both its cultural imperialism and the inefficiency of its global governance. For example, the Asian American alcoholic, announcing that he has been equipped with the spiritual power of Captain America and that nothing, including his head being pointed at by a gun, will make him drink again, soon picks up the alcohol bottle when a gun is being pointed at him. Likewise, although Armanika manages to engage with the aliens in the attempt to build diplomatic relations with them, the mission fails because the astronaut irritates the alien and causes its spaceship to accidentally crash with a satellite.

The film’s innovative usage of the Chinese theme park also contributes to this strategy of resistance to the US cultural hegemony. World Parks in China were once symbols of modernity, urbanization, and globalization, as depicted in, e.g., Jia Zhangke’s 2004 film The World (Gaetano 2009). However, in Crazy Alien, the park represents underclass life, a shift attributed to the rising consumption levels in the 2010s that enabled Chinese consumers to travel abroad, resulting in the decline of world parks (Takefoto.cn 2018). In the film, the world park setting serves as a space that not only witnesses most of Armanika’s failures but also transforms everything occurring there into allegories of the global governance apparatus, where the US hard power is found wanting while China offers practical solutions. For instance, having fallen into the Chinese theme park, the alien takes several photos of its surroundings that are picked up by the Armanika agents. The spots in the photos include Christ the Redeemer in Brazil, the Moscow Kremlin, and pyramids in Egypt – all of them scale models, of course. Not realizing that the photos are actually from the same place, the Armanika agents spend time and money on a search that takes them all around the world but find nothing. In a scene introducing the park at the beginning of the film, a worker comes out of a miniature of Capitol Hill just as another worker disguised as the Statue of Liberty passes by. The “statue” then lights a cigarette for the worker, a sarcastic metaphor suggesting that the American liberty serves those in power (Figure 1). Similarly, the alien’s sabotage of the miniatures in the park at the end of the film is a comedic metaphor for “destroying the world.” And when at the end of the film, Geng Hao manages to control the alien through his monkey training techniques, this can also be interpreted as an allegory of Chinese people succeeding where the American superpower fails. The film suggests that the wisdom drawn from Chinese tradition, despite its seemingly humble appearance, proves to be far more effective than modern American hard power. (It is worth noting that the Armanikan agents later adopt this monkey training technique, as shown in the closing sequence).

Figure 1
Figure 1

The opening scene of Crazy Alien satirizing the United States.

Citation: Studies in World Cinema 4, 1 (2024) ; 10.1163/26659891-bja10036

Frame Grab.

Accordingly, the film achieves its resistance against the US hegemony and Westernized modernity in two ways. It first points out the inefficiency or failure of both the US hard power and the US-led global governance. Through its playful narrative, the film resonates with those voices in Chinese academia that since the mid-2010s have pointed out that the Western-centred global governance system is unable to respond to global challenges effectively and that it fails to consider the interests of the Global South (Qin 2015; Lu 2014; Du and Ma 2017). In this respect, Crazy Alien distinguishes itself from many Chinese films in which “catching up with the West seems to be, paradoxically, a necessity in the nationalist project on non-West peoples” (Li 2001, 535). By contrast, the nationalism in Crazy Alien does not lie in a desire to “catch up with the West,” but in a highlighting of Chinese culture, which, despite being depicted as vulgar, peripheral, and outdated in the face of Western modernity, would be the one “saving the world.” Westernized modernity and its efficiency in governing global issues are thus questioned and presented as not necessarily “good” or “reliable” in the face of global challenges. At the same time, the film foregrounds China’s capability of governing global crises and the strength of Chinese culture, which becomes the second way to resist the US hegemony. The strength of Chinese culture is exemplified by its ability to ‘localize’ virtually everything. The replica park is China’s way of ‘localizing’ Western architecture. The alien itself is localized by being regarded as a trainable monkey, just as its headband and later incarnation as a monkey replicate the Monkey King. Even the background music and mise-en-scène demonstrate localization: Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, famously used by Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), is performed using Suona, a traditional Chinese musical instrument. And the famous scene of a boy riding a bicycle in front of a huge moon in Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) is parodied as a Chinese monkey performance (Figure 2). Indeed, the film represents Chinese culture as the strongest of melting pots, able to not only save the world but also homogenize Western and even alien cultures.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Crazy Alien’s homage to Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

Citation: Studies in World Cinema 4, 1 (2024) ; 10.1163/26659891-bja10036

Frame Grab.

The Wandering Earth: Envisioning a New Apparatus

Similar to Crazy Alien, The Wandering Earth offers a Chinese solution to futuristic global challenges. But whereas Crazy Alien primarily ridicules American hegemony, The Wandering Earth envisages a successful, Chinese-led global governance The film depicts a future world where the sun will expand and engulf Earth as well as the solar system. To survive, human beings cooperate and establish the United Earth Government (ueg), which decides to find a new habitat for Earth by pushing the planet out of the solar system via 10,000 planet engines constructed on the surface of Earth. Meanwhile, humans live underground due to the low temperature caused by the growing distance between Earth and the sun. A space station, known as the Navigation Platform International Space Station, is constructed to serve as both a navigator and protector of Earth. Liu Qi, a young man, begins his journey by escaping from the underground city with his younger sister, Han Duoduo. As Earth approaches Jupiter, the rapidly increasing gravity of Jupiter leads to the malfunction of thousands of planet engines. This compels the protagonist, along with the people he encounters, to repair a planet engine and deliver its fuel. However, by the time most engine issues are resolved, Earth is already too close to Jupiter and a collision seems inevitable. Liu Qi and his friends try to ignite the gas, a mixture of oxygen and hydrogen, between the two planets, but in the end, Liu Qi’s father, Liu Peiqiang, who has spent 17 years on the international space station, sacrifices himself and steers the space station with all its fuel right into Jupiter. The shock wave from the explosion is successful in pushing Earth away from Jupiter, allowing life on Earth to continue.

Aligned with the state discourse, The Wandering Earth presents a narrative that substitutes Western global governance with a proposed China-led world order.2 This resonates with official concepts such as “the realist kingly way (wushi wangdao),” “a new type of international relations,” and “building a community of shared future for mankind.” These three terms are interconnected and collectively suggest an alternative approach to address global issues. The first term refers to the approach China will adopt when dealing with other countries. Derived from Confucian theories, “Wangdao,” or “the kingly way,” means that the ruler or central administration should adhere to the principle of “ren,” which translates into benevolence. When combined with “realism,” which refers to a power’s pursuit of shared interests with other countries during diplomacy, the realist kingly way suggests that China will wield power inclusively, emphasizing harmony and mutually beneficial cooperation. According to Yan (2016), the kingly way entails a new value system capable of supplanting prevailing Western values. While Western values can be summarized as “freedom, equality, and democracy,” the Chinese value system comprises “benevolence (ren), righteousness (yi), and civilization (li)”. “A new type of international relations,” therefore, refers to a new global order constructed through this benevolent approach and the Chinese value system, which prioritizes the interests of developing countries. This mode of international relations represents an alternative to the current US-led world order. Lastly, “a community of a shared future for mankind” can be viewed as an envisioned outcome of the China-led global governance. The term describes the world as a whole community characterized by a win-win situation, harmony, and collective development, without the marginalization of any countries or races (Liu and Wang 2019).

Nonetheless, it is debatable whether the China-led global governance is grounded in genuine cosmopolitanism. First, the world system under China’s leadership is a revival of the ancient “tianxia,” or “all under heaven” worldview, in which China assumes a dominant position. Despite Zhao’s (2012) assertion that the tianxia worldview envisions a global political system with a world institution that benefits all peoples and cultures without exclusion, tianxia still places China at the center of the world. This implies that the harmony and collective development of all states are achieved within a hierarchical system, a system that relies on Confucian moral principles which might be hard to apply universally. As Beeson (2019, 47) critiques, “Tianxia looks rather like a theoretical or even ideological justification for hegemony with Chinese characteristics”. Beeson (2019) also contends that China’s Belt and Road Initiative resembles the US Marshall Plan, which supports China in becoming a hegemonic power. It remains unclear how China will attain harmony with countries that do not agree with the tianxia worldview – some countries favor individualism over collectivism, for example, while others may prefer a world system grounded in equality among nations to a hierarchical organisation.

Through its futuristic story, The Wandering Earth visualizes the China-led global governance system. The benevolent “kingly way” is foregrounded through China’s benevolent leadership and the decisions made by individual Chinese people when confronting global challenges. For example, when Moss, the artificial intelligence on the space station, declares that Earth has no hope of survival, the protagonists choose to fight for the last glimmer of hope. Fighting for the hope to preserve mankind is clearly motivated by benevolence. Likewise, when Earth faces the threat of being engulfed by the sun, the decision to move Earth away from the solar system instead of abandoning it also reflects benevolence toward both Earth and other civilizations in the universe. The film indicates that Earth, which has nurtured lives and civilizations, has to be taken care of by human beings. Conversely, seeking a new habitat in the universe may lead to settler colonizations, an action devoid of benevolence toward other civilizations. Also, it is noteworthy that despite harsh living conditions, humans, diverse entities, countries, and cultures in The Wandering Earth collaborate rather than antagonize each other. No conflicts arise during the collaboration among countries, as everyone works toward a common goal of saving Earth. This interaction mode also signifies benevolence, aligning with China’s “harmonious world” perspective.

China’s leadership in managing global crises, alongside other entities, is substantiated by the characters and their relationships. Liu Qi and his father, Liu Peiqiang, both have a ‘helper’ from a different culture.3 For instance, Liu Qi has a friend named Tim, whose father is from Beijing and whose mother is from Melbourne. However, Tim identifies himself as Chinese, indicating a preference for Chinese ethnicity and a subtle expression of nationalism. In the film, Tim assists Liu Qi in transporting the fuel and reenergizing the engine situated on Sulawesi Island on the equator. He also risks his life to rescue Liu Qi when Liu is trapped inside an engine.

The portrayal of Liu Peiqiang and his helper, a Russian cosmonaut named Makarov, symbolizes not only the spirit of collaboration under Chinese leadership but also the significance of a China-Russia partnership as pivotal to China’s diplomacy in the 2010s (He 2020). The film focuses on Liu Peiqiang’s interaction with Makarov although there are many other astronauts in the space station. Their friendship is foregrounded through Liu’s dialogues such as “we want to take our kids salmon fishing on Lake Baikal.” In one scene, the space station, under the control of Moss, attempts to abandon Earth because Moss believes that Earth will be unable to escape Jupiter’s gravity. Liu decides to stop the space station manually because his family is still on Earth. Knowing that Liu’s behavior can result in prosecution, Makarov still helps Liu reach the control room. Liu’s friendship with Makarov, rather than with astronauts from other countries, can be seen as an expression of the fact that since the 2010s, China has regarded Russia as one of the most crucial countries for establishing a partnership across various levels, including economy, military, and security (Bolt and Cross 2018; Ruan 2016).

The concept of building a “community with a shared future of mankind” is one of the major ideologies conveyed in the film. Official media outlets, such as People’s Daily, have commended The Wandering Earth for portraying this very concept (People.cn 2019). Characters in The Wandering Earth come from many countries, and dialogue is presented in various languages, including Mandarin, English, French, Russian, Japanese, Korean, Italian, and Hindi. This suggests a globalized and diverse context. In contrast to Hollywood movies such as Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016), where countries grapple with global crises separately, characters with diverse cultural backgrounds in The Wandering Earth unite to fight for survival. For example, Liu Qi and his friends decide to maximize the Sulawesi engine to ignite the mixture of oxygen and hydrogen between Earth and Jupiter, making the explosion powerful enough to propel Earth away. A section of the engine requires manual repositioning, necessitating a significant number of people. However, all the rescue teams, except for Liu Qi’s team, have departed to spend the final hours of their lives with their families. Although they initially appear reluctant to return and assist Liu Qi, what changes the situation is the global broadcast by Han Duoduo, Liu Qi’s adopted young sister. In her one-minute speech, Han Duoduo explains the significance of hope, calling for the union and support of human beings. Touched by the girl’s sincerity, hundreds of teams, composed of members from various countries, opt to return and strive for hope. A high-angle shot exhibits the return of these teams’ vehicles and the arrival of people from multiple countries to provide assistance, accompanied by epic background music (Figure 3). In this context, the coordination for Earth’s survival resonates with the concept of “a shared future,” which represents the common interests and hope of all human beings in China’s global governance discourse.

Figure 3
Figure 3

The scene of rescue teams in The Wandering Earth.

Citation: Studies in World Cinema 4, 1 (2024) ; 10.1163/26659891-bja10036

Frame Grab.

As demonstrated in this sequence, the construction of a China-led global governance is rooted in Chinese culture and values, such as collectivism. This means that these values are not universal, even though they may seem to be. Weihua He (2020) argues that The Wandering Earth demonstrates a cosmopolitanism that respects the identities of individuals from other countries. The evidence he uses is that diverse cultures and languages of characters are maintained in the film rather than being eliminated or homogenized to form a global community. However, Han Duoduo’s plot to call back all the rescue teams somewhat contradicts this interpretation. People worldwide sacrifice their personal hopes (to reunite with their families) in order to achieve a higher goal (to save Earth). This connotes a collectivist culture prioritizing the interests of the community over the individual, a concept typically associated with Confucian ideology. A similar ideology can be seen in the Chinese blockbuster Hero (Zhang Yimou, 2002), which illustrates the concept of tianxia and the way unity, in this thinking, necessitates personal sacrifice. An assassin in Hero gives up his revenge on a king who is able to end the wars between countries and reunite tianxia (Chen and Rawnsley 2011). The shared theme of these two films indicates the paradox within China’s theory of global governance – can a non-inclusive system rooted in collectivism and hierarchy still be considered cosmopolitanism?

Another aspect in The Wandering Earth that contradicts the non-exclusive discourse of China-led global governance is the deliberate omission of the role of the United States from central functions. For example, the fabricated United Earth Government (ueg), an institute responsible for making decisions for mankind, appears to be another version of the United Nations because a scene shows that the major authorities of the ueg are five countries: the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France. The official language of the ueg is French, however. Another example is Tim, the aforementioned teenager whose mother is from Melbourne. Interestingly, Mike Sui, the actor who plays Tim, is indeed multiracial but his mother is American rather than Australian. Arguably, this omission of the United States in the film could be attributed to the US-China trade war that began in 2018. The production team may have wanted to avoid arousing nationalist sentiments among the audience by minimizing the importance of the United States in the film, as this could lead to boycotts and adversely affect the film’s market performance. However, downplaying the role of the United States in global governance contributes to a rhetoric of the China-led global governance without America, rather than an all-inclusive world system.

Conclusion

Considering Chinese sci-fi blockbusters in a resistance perspective vis-à-vis Hollywood’s cultural hegemony, this paper has explored how the notion of global governance in China has been mediated and reconstructed in Crazy Alien and The Wandering Earth. Largely looking like Hollywood blockbusters, these sci-fi films imagine futuristic global challenges and envision China’s role in leading the world in the face of an apocalypse. However, this China-led global governance apparatus is founded on China’s interests, international relations, and ideologies rather than on cosmopolitanism. In this regard, Chinese sci-fi blockbusters are inevitably politicized and pedagogical, echoing China’s global ambition during the era of the Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese sci-fi films’ mediation of global governance allows us to see not only this genre in a non-Western context but also the way this genre and film production interact with and are shaped by state politics. Chinese big-budget sci-fi productions offer alternatives to Hollywood sci-fi, and the analysis presented in this paper will be useful in exploring other sci-fi films produced in non-Western contexts.

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1

Interestingly, in its overseas trailer released on Rotten Tomatoes, the English dialogue says “America”. See https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/crazy_alien_2019.

2

The Wandering Earth has been called “Space Wolf Warrior” by some audiences because of its nationalist expression and the cast of Wu Jing, the director and leading actor of Wolf Warrior 2. However, the popularity of The Wandering Earth, as stated at the beginning, is mostly due to the nationalist indication of the film as the first Chinese sci-fi blockbuster. See an answer on Zhihu for the question “Why is The Wandering Earth called ‘Space Wolf Warrior’?” at: https://www.zhihu.com/question/312734568/answer/1599920706.

3

The role of “helper” is from Vladimir Propp’s theory of characters’ function. Propp’s theory has had a huge influence on the character design and narrative of Hollywood movies (Fell 1977).

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