Orange Wednesday: The Wandering Earth (2019) and The Water Margin (1972)

The Wandering Earth
The Wandering Earth

No superhero movies this week. That’s got to be an improvement, hasn’t it?

In fact, I feel doubly impressed with myself this week, since I’ve gone totally foreign language. Following on from previous Orange Wednesdays’ forays into Japanese cinema, this week we’re heading to China for both our movies.

First up is The Wandering Earth, based on Hugo Award-winning author Liu Cixin’s novella of the same name and which despite having only been released in February is already:

  • China’s second highest-grossing film of all time
  • 2019’s third highest-grossing film worldwide
  • The second highest-grossing non-English film of all time
  • One of the top 20 highest-grossing science fiction films of all time.

Secondly, we have the 1973 adaptation of that classic of Chinese literature, The Water Margin. That has more martial arts fights in it than that description might suggest.

Both of those after the jump

The Captive Earth (2019)
The Captive Earth (2019)

The Captive Earth (2019)

Available on Netflix

In the future, the Sun has aged and is about to turn into a red giant, pushing the nations of the world to consolidate into a United Earth Government and initiate a project to move the Earth out of the solar system towards Alpha Centauri, in order to preserve further human civilisation.

Enormous thrusters running on fusion power are built across the planet to propel the Earth. Human population is reduced severely due to catastrophic tides that occur after the planetary engines stop Earth’s rotation, and later as the planet moves away from the Sun, much of the surface is frozen due to lowered temperatures, forcing humans to live in vast underground cities built adjacent to the engines.

As Earth passes by Jupiter to make use of gravity assist, Jupiter’s gravitational spike causes devastating earthquakes that disable many thrusters across the globe and pull the Earth dangerously close. Can the survivors save the Earth and all of humanity?

Netflix's The Wandering Earth

Wandering scriptwriting

It’s hard to know, really, where to start in describing how dreadful The Wandering Earth is. Just take in that plot – does it even make one shred of sense? Not at all.

Science-fiction can be metaphorical, of course, and Liu Cixin’s writings often are, but here, enough liberties have been taken in adaptation that even metaphor can’t be used as an excuse.

Just as one insanely stupid idea gets knocked out of the way, along comes another one. Stuck in Jupiter’s gravitation field? Don’t worry – enough of Earth’s oxygen-rich atmosphere has been sucked off and mixed up with it that all it’ll take is one ‘match’ to ignite it and cause Jupiter to explode!

Gosh, I wonder if that might have some side-effects for the Earth.

And again, all of that might be fine if there were any other good qualities to it, beyond looking pretty.

The Wandering Earth

Workers paradise

Except there aren’t. The Wandering Earth is staggeringly dull, for starters. It took me about four efforts to get all the way through a two-hour movie. It’s all crash, bang, wallop with little peril, little motivation, and little explanation.

Not that the explanations when they come make any sense, of course. Both the subtitles and the dubbing – I tried both – are bad enough that it’s hard to work out sometimes what the script is actually trying to say.

There are barely any characters among the legions of cast members and those few that get more than a moment of character development never get any depth, just tiresome cliché. There’s a petulant teenage girl, a young man still angry at his dad on a space station for never returning, there’s the stoic dad giving everything for the Earth. And that’s about it.

Then there’s the fact that this is possibly the biggest act of copyright infringement China has ever perpetrated. It’s essentially redoing Armageddon, with a bunch of plucky workers uniting as astronauts to save the Earth. Everything on the space station that’s navigating the Earth (no, really) is 2001, complete with MOSS, the computer that’s in no way related to HAL. Let’s not get started on the Space: 1999 elements. It was in part so boring simply because I’d seen it all before.

That said, there are a few Chinese twists on these familiar stories. For starters, there’s a distinct “workers of the world will come together to save the day by making sacrifices” subtext to the whole thing. Then we have the fact we have some Russians (with very stereotypical accents in the dubbed version, but speaking Russian in the original soundtrack) who are… friendly. Comedic. They help to save the day. That’s so un-American.

Honestly, though, watching it, I felt the human race was so unbelievably stupid, it deserved to die.

The Water Margin

The Water Margin (1972)

Available on Amazon Prime

Growing up in the UK in the 70s and 80s, there were two huge Asian TV shows that everyone watched (imagine that, hey?). Oddly, they were both Japanese but were based on two of the four classic novels of Chinese literature. The first is one of the most fondly remembered shows of the era: Monkey, based on Journey to the West.

However, the second is far less well remembered: The Water Margin, based on the book of the same name. Indeed, while I did write a post about Monkey, since it was relatively easy for my young mind to remember the big animal characters of Monkey, Pigsy and co, I realised when I got round to thinking about doing one for The Water Margin that all I could remember was that it was about a bunch of freedom-fighting bandits who lived in a place called Liangshan Po and who were led by a guy called Lin Chung. And the theme tune, of course.

Movie magic

Needless to say, just as Monkey has had other adaptations, so has The Water Margin, including one by noted Hong Kong film producers The Shaw Brothers back in 1972. Being only a two-hour movie rather than a TV series, this could only cover chapters 64-68 of the original story – something it kindly points out in the opening sequence.

Interestingly, though, this isn’t a story focused on Lin Chung – or Lin Chong as he is in the subtitles. He appears a little, but given The Water Margin is about “the trials and tribulations of 108 outlaws during the Song Dynasty”, it’s not 100% surprising that other characters are the focus here, albeit not the full 107.

Indeed, so vast is the cast list that every time a character from the book turns up, there’s a helpful onscreen caption to explain who he or she is.

A new boss

Instead, the focus of the story is ‘formidable wrestler’ Yan Qing (David Chiang) and his boss General Lu Junyi (Tetsurō Tamba). The bandits of Liangshan (the dialogue says ‘Lianghsan Po’, the subtitles say ‘Lianghshan bandits’ – who you gonna believe?) want to recruit General Lu, the bad guys want to stop him.

And then for two hours it’s a concerted series of fights interspersed with various members of both groups getting captured, getting released, getting captured again, getting released again and so on.

Yes, being only three chapters of an overall story, naturally, there’s not much plot and not a huge amount of resolution to storylines. Indeed, what plot there is is lots of courtly intrigue and scheming that leads to lots of captures, more captures, more releases etc etc. Mostly the story feels like an origin story for Yan Qing, rather than anything complete in itself.

The Water Margin

Water wings

But the movie is a lot more amenable than The Wandering Earth. For starters, there’s high production values for the time, particularly in the wardrobe department, and a pretty stellar cast of personable Shaw Brothers players all doing top martial arts action.

Well, top for the time – you could see why Bruce Lee’s style of shooting became popular so quickly, given the artifice and general level of flying across rooftops that reached its apotheosis in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Tiger.

Then there are the characters, who are varying shades of honourable/evil and larger than life. When Yan Qing goes off robbing passers-by to get the cash he needs to go to Liangshan, he accidentally attacks one of the bandits. They have a tussle, but when it’s revealed who’s who, everyone’s very apologetic, even the muggees.

Liangshan (Po) seems like quite a fun place to hang out, with everyone playing drinking games, and even the ladies get to join in with the action. Indeed, there’s some actual comedy going on, which lifts it above the rather po-faced The Wandering Earth, whose few attempts at humour are, shall we say, quite broad?

Lastly, there’s the fabulous 70s soundtrack, complete with Hammond organ. How can you not enjoy a movie with a soundtrack like this one?

The Water Margin

Margin call

Like the TV series, The Water Margin isn’t massively memorable beyond its overall set-up. But it’s a jolly way to spend a couple of hours and is a classic of its time.


  • I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.