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Issue 17

In the Long Run We Will All Still be Paying Our Debt

Tanvi Rupakula reviews the Korean space western movie, Space Sweepers, set in 2092 AD.

The biggest takeaway from Jo Sunghee’s film Space Sweepers is this: there will be capitalism in a post-apocalyptic space society. And since there is capitalism, there will subsequently be poverty, debt and large amounts of harmful waste. The film is set in the year 2092; Earth has become uninhabitable as no plant life can survive on the surface anymore, and the air is poisonous. A corporation called UTS had built a new home for humanity on Mars using genetically modified plants. But there’s a catch, only those who have the money can become UTS citizens, which means most of humanity is left to their devices on Earth and a remaining few float around space selling scraps of space debris to earn their bread. 

To begin with, the dialogue and plot of the movie isn’t pitch perfect ﹘ the villain, James Sullivan (played by Richard Armitage), is a bit caricatured and bears an uncanny resemblance to Elon Musk, and the narrative is rather clichéd. Our protagonists, Taeho (played by Song Joong-ki) and Captain Jang (played by Kim Taeri) do a good enough job making space look simultaneously cool and miserable. And five-year-old Dorothy (whose real name is Kot-nim) is the perfect emotional core for the film. At times, the characters feel under-developed, even with a running time of 136 minutes. But it’s not as bad as when the third act melts into a pot of cheese by painting James Sullivan as the sole problem, and the sole solution becomes killing him off. It’s a disappointing but not unsurprising climax; the neo-liberal, cookie-cutter quick fix to world problems. At least we get our sweet (imaginary) revenge on Elon Musk.

Ultimately, however, the film has its plus points as well. For one, the world-building is convincing enough and  the CGI is pretty cool. The story is gripping and funny. Watching Kim Taeri clad in leather jackets and spitting profanities for nearly two hours isn’t that bad a sight either. Most importantly, Space Sweepers sparks a rush of satisfaction in any viewer who’s had enough of SpaceX philosophy and how rockets are going to save the world.

The political message of the movie regarding the environment, unlike quite a few sci-fi films, is not only loud and clear but also comprehensive. Firstly, the idea that corporations will bury solutions to the climate crisis to prioritize their profits could very well be a reality, but what’s more interesting is that the movie almost concludes that technology won’t save humanity from our problems, that we need to radically change our economic structures, that making the world more equitable is part of saving the planet – until it doesn’t. Which of course, is the real dystopia ﹘ that technology, which has the great potential to liberate so much of humanity, is in the end appropriated by capitalism to reap profits. 

All in all, Space Sweepers is pleasantly critical of global capitalism for a blockbuster, and not simply in a sensational, vague way, if you cut it some slack. Moreover, it’s a truly internationalist film, with characters of many ethnicities and countries, and a script that moves seamlessly across languages. It doesn’t feel forced in the least, and for once, it’s relieving to know that the human race’s diversity of language and culture ﹘ the film is truly multilingual, with different ethnicities speaking their own language, connected by translator devices that everyone has ﹘ will survive the end of the world. Perhaps it’s a sign that non-Western audiences and creators are more committed to linguistic diversity (or less bothered by it). I’d watch it if I were in the mood for something lighthearted and fast, but I wouldn’t say it’s a must-watch. 

PS. Also recommended if anyone is sick of seeing white people in sci-fi, only because it’s a place we’ve all been in. 

Featured Image Credits: http://www.cbr.com

Tanvi Rupakula is a writer for Navrang, the Film Society of Ashoka University.

This review first appeared in the Navrang Journal, check out more of their articles here.

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