Photo: ‘Space Sweepers’/Netflix
It was around this time one year ago that Korean cinema scored one of its biggest milestones on the global stage, with ‘Parasite’ taking home top honors at the Academy Awards. Now we have a different sort of achievement, much smaller but just as key: with ‘Space Sweepers’, director Jo Sung-Hee delivers South Korea’s first space blockbuster. Initially set for a theatrical release last year, it’s now debuting on Netflix after numerous pandemic-related delays. The end result is a film that, while definitely derivative of other works, still offers a fun and exciting sci-fi journey.
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Making a Living in Space
The year is 2092, and Earth is now a borderline uninhabitable wasteland due to pollution. Humanity’s wealthy elites have fled to Eden, a seemingly utopian space colony in Earth’s orbit that’s built and ruled by the megacorporation UTS, led by CEO James Sullivan (Richard Armitage) who has plans to colonize Mars. Those who can’t afford it are left behind and struggle to survive, including working as “space sweepers”: ragtag crews of scavengers who make their living competing for, gathering, and selling valuable space junk. We follow one such crew operating out of the derelict spaceship Victory, consisting of pilot Tae-ho (Song Joong-Ki), captain Jang (Kim Tae-ri), engineer Tiger Park (Jin Seon-kyu), and robot companion Bubs (voiced by Yoo Hae-Jin).
While on a routine salvage job the crew finds a young girl named Dorothy (Park Ye-Rin). They quickly learn that she’s an android implanted with a powerful bomb and that she’s being sought after by both UTS and a terrorist group called the Black Foxes. Sensing a potential windfall, the crew decides to ransom Dorothy in the hopes of scoring a huge payday to clear their debts. But their plan gets complicated as they grow increasingly attached to the innocent little girl, and they soon find themselves in the midst of a sinister plot with the fate of the Earth at stake.
A Fun Thrill Ride With Clear Influences
Let’s just get this out of the way: when you center a film on a group of space misfits turned unlikely heroes, you’re going to draw some comparisons to ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’; and there’s definitely bits of that in this film’s DNA (although there are no aliens here and all the space action takes place strictly along Earth’s orbit). Another key influence is arguably Shinichiro Watanabe’s iconic anime series ‘Cowboy Bebop’, with its focus on a scrappy crew traveling in a worn-out spaceship and eking out a living. You can also see elements of ‘Blade Runner’, TV’s ‘Firefly’, ‘Elysium’, and even ‘WALL-E’ in the film.
What this means is that the end result isn’t really that surprising, with story beats you can easily see coming: of course our heroes are going to have a change of heart and come to love Dorothy, and of course Sullivan isn’t as benevolent as he portrays himself to be and is up to no good. But what the film lacks in originality, it makes up for with enthusiasm. What also sets the film apart from most other post-apocalyptic sci-fi is its sense of humor and willingness to embrace the occasional tone shift, which are hallmarks of Korean cinema. While there are genuinely heavy dramatic moments played for maximum effect, the film isn’t above also using slapstick and even fart jokes to lighten things.
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As mentioned earlier, this is Korea’s first go at delivering an epic space adventure film. And as such, director Jo Sung-Hee (who co-wrote the script with Yoon Seung-Min and Yoo-kang Seo-ae) comes at it eager to prove and he brings zip and panache to the proceedings. The action sequences are energetic and thrilling, with cinematographer Byun Bong-Sun dynamically capturing the large-scale space battles and the ground-level fights. Intricate set designs give the world a lived-in feel with contrasting environments, from the clean UTS locales and opulent future nightclubs to the grimy interiors of the Victory. And while the use of CGI is obvious, the quality is impressive with Jo staging some genuinely dazzling visuals, like Bubs swinging through space between pursuing spaceships or a wide shot of UTS soldiers shooting at the Victory looming above them. Considering the filmmakers are working with a smaller budget (24 billion KRW, or about $21 million) than a typical Hollywood blockbuster, the end result is visually stunning.
The fact that the characters are stock types isn’t even a problem; in fact, some of the film’s best moments involve observing the crew’s antics as they bicker and just mess about. Song makes Tae-ho a sympathetic hero with a tragic backstory whose actions are understandable; Jin is fun as the tough guy who can’t help but immediately be won over by Dorothy; Kim makes for a charismatic captain; Yoo is snarky and engaging as Bubs. The only downside is that of the four leads, Tae-ho has more of an arc while the others feel a bit one-dimensional. As Dorothy, Park Ye-rin is a treat: she manages to be adorable without ever becoming cloying, and we buy the bond she forges with the Victory crew. And Armitage’s character is equally one-note, but he delivers a fun performance as the film’s odious villain. Overall, the cast delivers solid work.
‘Space Sweepers’ Offers Social Commentary As Well
‘Space Sweepers’ fits into something of a trend in sci-fi of depicting space exploration in a more mundane light, and of highlighting working-class characters (again, works like ‘Firefly’ and ‘Cowboy Bebop’ come to mind). While being in space should theoretically be awe-inspiring, as far as our lead characters are concerned it’s just another workplace. Even in the stars, they can’t escape the looming specter of capitalism—of corporations, brands, pollution, and ever-mounting debt. For the space sweepers, the threat of destitution persists as they barely make enough to make ends meet, and every job carries the risk of incurring further debt.
Circling back to ‘Parasite’, what that film and this one have in common is the insight into class dynamics between the poor and the rich. In ‘Parasite’ there’s the scene where lower-class mother Chung-sook remarks how someone can afford to be nice because of their wealth. In ‘Space Sweepers’ a character wonders early on if poverty means they’re bad, or if they’re bad because they’re poor. This comes through the most with Sullivan, who’s basically a personification of systemic injustice at its most heinous; twice in the movie he railroads someone less fortunate into making a bad choice, and then he shames them and holds that up as proof of their inferiority.
The film argues that being poor doesn’t make a person bad, but it does rob them of good choices. We see that with the Victory crew, who aren’t bad people but are willing to do something bad—sell off Dorothy—out of sheer desperation to stave off poverty. ‘Space Sweepers’ never gets as bleak as ‘Parasite’ and pretty much tables the debate in the second half to turn into a more straightforward action-adventure story of the lower classes rising up against an evil elite. But still, it gets points for a willingness to engage with the theme.
Another aspect of the film worth noting is that the world of ‘Space Sweepers’ is one that’s quite multicultural. An early scene establishes that every character is equipped with a translator device, which means that they can all understand each other while speaking their own languages. Our leads are Korean and the people they encounter hail from a range of nationalities, from Chinese to French to Russian. A pivotal character the crew meets, later on, speaks in a heavy patois, and Spanish is used by Tae-ho during the ransom negotiation scenes. The film’s diversity is handled in a refreshingly casual manner, simply being viewed as a given.
The film is also surprising in its sensitive handling of a transgender storyline/allegory. Bubs is a robot with the desire to assimilate with their human crew members. Their voice is male, but the human appearances they’re interested in are all female. What’s notable here is how Bubs’ want is never portrayed as bizarre; like the film’s multiculturalism, everyone just accepts it and thinks it’s no big deal. I’m curious to see how trans viewers perceive Bubs’ arc, but for a blockbuster film, this feels like a step forward in terms of representation.
Familiarity aside, ‘Space Sweepers’ is a very exciting and entertaining film, delivering escapist fun and spectacle with a dash of social commentary. And it heralds promise for Korean cinema: that it can make space blockbusters as good as Hollywood can.
Cast: Song Joong-Ki, Kim Tae-ri, Jin Seon-kyu, Yoo Hae-Jin, Park Ye-Rin, Mu-Yeol Kim, Richard Armitage
Director: Jo Sung-hee | Writers: Jo Sung-hee, Yoon Seung-min, Yoo-kang Seo-ae | Producers: Yoon In-beom, You Jeong-hun, Kim Soo-jin | Cinematography: Byun Bong-sun | Music: Kim Tae-seong | Editors: Nam Na-young, Ha Mi-ra
By Mario Yuwono
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