Screen Education

Cinema Science PLANETARY PROPULSION IN THE WANDERING EARTH

More often than not, Cinema Science introductions include a passing reference to the chosen film’s or franchise’s box-office takings. While I’m loath to overemphasise the importance of a film’s profitability or lack thereof – in stark contrast to a large chunk of contemporary entertainment journalism – these figures are important in the context of this column. Box-office success, perhaps better than any other metric, measures the popularity of a film. Given that Cinema Science is built around choosing films whose cultural ubiquity ensures their relevance in the classroom, it makes sense to talk about box-office figures.

It’s not a perfect measure, though, as exemplified by Chinese sci-fi film The Wandering Earth (Frant Gwo, 2019). Measured purely on its box-office receipts, it’s one of the most popular films of 2019: at the time of writing, its US$700 million revenue puts it in the top ten highest-grossing films of the year worldwide, within spitting distance of juggernauts like Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (David Leitch) and Disney’s live-action remake of Aladdin (Guy Ritchie).1 But most of you are probably thinking the same thing: why haven’t I heard of it?

If your main exposure to cinematic culture is through your local multiplex, it’s actually not all that surprising that the name of the film might not ring a bell. Of The Wandering Earth’s formidable profits, some 99 per cent came from its local market of China.2 There’s the rub: box office is only a truly meaningful metric of popularity if you take into account the increasingly fractured nature of global film distribution. Locally – and across most Western markets – The Wandering Earth’s release was relegated to a super-quiet Netflix release; as of January 2020, the film remains available for Australian audiences on the streaming service.

As such, I have to approach as a Cinema Science subject a little differently than most films.(Josh Cooley, 2019) or (Anthony & Joe Russo, 2019) to incorporate into your Science or Maths curriculum, you can practically guarantee that the majority of your class has seen, or at least heard of, the movie. Not so with And I can’t in good conscience recommend spending your lessons on the entirety of its 125-minute running time. If nothing else, it’s not a particularly great film. Gwo draws on Hollywood blockbusters from a couple of decades ago; think (Michael Bay, 1998) meets (Roland Emmerich, 2004) and you’ve got a pretty good sense of the thrust of the movie. It’s as sophisticated as those films, too, which is to say: not at all. But what does have going for it is a compelling, scientifically dense premise that can be introduced to your classes with only a couple of brief excerpts.

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1 Todd Spangler, ‘HBO’s Chernobyl Is Now the Top-rated TV Show on IMDb’, Variety, 5 June 2019, ,accessed 25 September 2019. 2 Craig Mazin, in ‘The Chernobyl Podc
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