The least anyone expected in the past year would be to have to wait out a whole pandemic in order to have some semblance of some semblance of fun (yes, I wrote it like that, and you read it correctly the same). Moviegoers the world around were resigned to such a fate even as trailers for Jo Sung-hee’s latest star-spangled space rouser, Space Sweepers, made the rounds with small trailer bits touting a hopeful release last summer, and so with its delay came the usual brouhaha over releasing films onto smaller screens despite helmers priming their work for more grandiose theatrical showings.
We can go over all the Nolan-isms on that all day, of course, and sadly, it won’t change the fact that the best course of action for any film to see movement would be to tether it to a streaming deal of some kind. I’ll leave the watercooler chatter to the rest of you on this topic, though it’s safe to say that in most cases, the safest bet is the one that keeps everyone safe at home – an albeit fair choice from the folks at Merry Christmas and Netflix for their newest presentation, headlining a reunion with Jo and his A Werewolf Boy star, actor Song Joong-ki. Alas, I can assert that my own viewing of this film on a smaller screen didn’t take much away from its enjoyment, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say this: It helps that this film is as good as the Twitter hype suggests.
Jo’s script sets course for our adventure into the year 2092, when the quality of life on Earth has fallen so atmospherically low due to pollution, that the only way to live, at least for a select handful, is in space, thanks in whole to the innovative efforts of UTS Corporation and its seemingly philanthropic CEO, James Sullivan (Richard Armitage). Having created a new space for living among these stations at the precipice of space, it is up to the gruntwork of junk ship operators to collect fast-floating interstellar space debris before they do damage, and when it comes to clean up in exchange for the chop they can make, the steadfast operators of the notorious bucket-o-bolts that is the Victory – its pilot Tae-Ho (Song Joong-ki), engineer Tiger (Jin Sung-kyu), reprogrammed military robot Bubs (Yu Hae-jin) and boozer Captain Jang (Kim Tae-ri) – won’t hesitate to collect.
One day, the crew begin toiling away at a damaged ship just moments before stumbling upon a girl in hiding named Dorothy (Park Ye-rin), who bears a striking resemblance to what the news is reporting as a missing bomb in the form of an android. Quick to scare at first, the crew sooner see this as an opportunity to make some much-needed cold hard cash to help dig themselves out of the massive debt they’ve accrued, among other things. Amid the hysteria though, it’s only a matter of time before the crew puts the pieces together, after witnessing just a few small miracles amidst fracas with robotic UTS footsoldiers, and a reportedly notorious extremist organization known as the Black Foxes. However, what remains to be seen is whether or not our plucky heroes – each with their own histories and reasons for being where (and who) they are now – are willing to see past putting a dollar value on something they’ve barely begun to understand, as an impending battle looms to prevent an even more nefarious and greater scheme from unfolding at the hands of an evil corporate magnate with a god complex.
Space Sweepers is a considerably massive undertaking given its two-hour and ten-minute duration (which is minus the six-minute credit roll), with as many pieces on the table as there are. Nonetheless, the whole of this film is a provenly well-balanced, executed space adventure that harkens back to the kind of classic space cowboy thrills leading up to the kinds of walloping action and spectacle that still compels sci-fi audiences to this day.
Jo primes the audience to immerse themselves into the story with a mix of background and minor co-starring/supporting roles from multiple ethnic and linguistic backgrounds, and the use of translatory earpieces, to establish our main cast of characters. One other key characteristics with selling a big and bold space thriller are the visuals, and thus, it was an excellent move on Jo’s part to open with a wide shot of a dismal cityscape on Earth – a first signature step for the film in flexing its ocular storytelling muscle – whilst concordantly introducing the role of Tae-ho.
Therein lies the characterization of our main cast and how the film goes about using certain story elements and pieces to construe each of our characters’ motivations according to the procession of events throughout. The quintessential key here is the casting of the child roles to cohere things as they pertain to Tae-ho, and exactly how far to up the stakes between each moment and plot twist before our underdog pilot, troubled with his own grievances and debts, is able to make the choices he must.
Some films and especially serial dramas make the mistake of hammering the moral messaging into our heads to fill in the extra space, which is so often a terrible sign of weak writing. Here, the string of events are layered enough to at least attribute some nuance to understanding Tae-ho, as he struggles with perceiving his own moral caliber parallel to his luck. All this adds a sense of coherence and depth in embracing Tae-ho along with the rest of the quartet, due greatly to each of their performances as a cast and the chemistry they share, including with actor Yu in a motion-capture outfit portraying one of the more delightful of the bunch.
Much ado here is the credit Jo deserves for casting Park Ye-rin and Oh Ji-yul as the two pivotal characters of our story surrounding Tae-ho – always the apposite ingredient for a Korean feature film when a director shepherding flawed protagonists requires endearing child talent to balance out the formula and compel and inspire viewers in the process. She’s pretty much the Boo to the Monster’s Inc.-like Mike and James-toned apprehension and hysterics of the Victory crew as they struggle to cope with what they’re hearing in the news prior to what they eventually learn much later on about Dorothy’s true nature. Meanwhile, headlining antagonist Armitage’s placeholder Liam Nesson-like, albeit serviceable portrayal of Sullivan bodes fairly well enough to even things out as far as acting goes among the pastiche of non-Asian characters in the backdrop.
Action and spectacle are handed in spades throughout the drama and comedy high jinks. Large set pieces set the stage increasingly toward the end with our reluctant heroes forced to go toe-to-toe with robotic footsoldiers, handing the spotlight to our main cast for some purely enthusing moments with Bubs frequenting a handy harpoon like a makeshift javelin to collect space trash or trap enemy drones, Tae-ho and Tiger – unabashed when it’s time to go old school and scrap, and Jang who’s no stranger to a blaster – particularly a rifle with a voice over straight out of a Toonami commercial. There’s also a climatic battle between Tiger and a superpowered android soldier that bears a striking resemblance to Ex-Machina‘s Ava if she and Man Of Steel‘s Faora had a killer android baby.
In holding a candle to the works of such films as the Guardians Of The Galaxy movies, Serenity, or nearly any of the Star Wars films, Space Sweepers puts in more than its share of the gruntwork. Despite the rough-edged task of accustoming to some of the caricaturish acting among most the non-Asian cast, Space Sweepers never loses its energy or sense of self, nor misses out on critical moments and beats in its storytelling.
The overall look and design is rich in structure and treatment, and wholly welcoming to characters more than able to befit a film of this kind. The film’s arrival comes at a fascinating time as well, with the last few months providing more than enough to look forward to in outer space adventures on the film front, with the release of Liam O’Donnell’s Skylines and upcoming Occupation: Rainfall currently inbound to name a few, and needless to say the ride hasn’t been all smooth with this genre lately. Thankfully, the several exceptions along the way contentedly include what writer/director Jo has accomplished here, with Song, Yu, Jin, Kim and Armitage on deck for a solid, sprawling star-crossed thriller worth multiple rewatches and recommendations.
Space Sweepers is as leisurely and exciting as nearly anything you’ve grown up with over the years, whether it was Star Wars or Star Trek shows, or cult favorites like The Last Starfighter or shows such as Firefly or Babylon 5, or even Rogue One or Solo: A Star Wars Movie (the latter discernibly had its bright spots despite not being the best among Star Wars films according to some fans). The characters are all tangible, the writing is fantastic, the main performances are excellent, and you get a tonally resonant, escapist thrillride along the way. It’s a story packed with energy, intensity, suspense, introspection, and heart, and for a film relegated to at-home viewing, Space Sweepers is an endearing home viewing experience.
See it now on Netflix.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.