Space Sweepers is a gloriously fun science-fiction escapade through space. A delightfully zany and polished sci-fi adventure movie, it plays, at times, like a live-action anime. While it is a mishmash of genres it nevertheless never crosses the line into dullsville, which for a movie running almost two and half hours is saying something.
It could be argued that Jo Sung-hee’s sprawling melodrama space-noir about a ragtag group of space junk salvagers rescuing a young girl from a megalomaniacal billionaire is a bit of a mess. Space Sweepers is one of those adventure movies where characters cover impossible distances in between cutaways. You can either sit around griping about it or just go with the flow.
I went with the flow.
Space Sweepers has a lot of moving parts and while they may not all be synced up, the film still manages to careen towards its cinematic conclusion without any hiccups. Written by Yoon Seung-min, Yoo-kang Seo-ae, and Sung-hee himself, it by no means breaks any new ground narratively speaking but it does bring enough chutzpah to bear that it keeps things interesting.
The story follows a salvage ship, The Victory, a loveable crew of rogues who will soon realize they have formed a sort of found family. We have the sullen and cynical hotshot pilot Tae-ho (Song Joong-ki) along with the temperamental heavy with the heart of gold mechanic Tiger Park (Jin Seon-Kyu). The ship is commanded by the captain, the dour, stone-faced, cold-blooded Captain Jang (Kim Tae-ri) with the ship’s maintenance droid the surly put upon Bubs (voiced byYoo Hae-jin).
Space Sweepers takes place in a dystopian future where the rich and the privileged live above Earth’s atmosphere and plot a voyage to terraform Mars as a new paradise, while the poor are left on Earth, long ago abandoned to its doomed destiny. There is, as there always is, a mega-corporation run by a mysterious powerful billionaire who isn’t as benign as he may appear. Here it’s the founder and CEO of UTS James Sullivan (Richard Armitage).
Sung-hee hits the ground running and while there is a lot of exposition, most of it is for the characters, “He’s not scary. He’s just poor, desperate, and mean.” It doesn’t hurt that the script has a way of succinctly summing up complex personalities in an almost Raymond Chandler-esque way. Still, much of the world of Space Sweepers is left for us to put together for ourselves.
Some characters have more backstory than most, and in the last leg of the film, we get a glut of exposition that feels like it was dumped in because the producers realized that they had forgotten to tell us something, but honestly the last minute information dump just vibes with the feel of the movie. Sung-hee takes his time with the story and lets us explore the vast gulf between the world of promise and enlightenment of UTS and the grimy filthy world of the workers. It is an old trick but one that works despite its age.
UTS is attempting to terraform Mars, and remake it into an Eden. But an Eden in which only a chosen few may live. Earth is becoming a squalor of civilization whereas space has become a paradise for the wealthy and elite. Sullivan and UTS claim they can tell a person’s moral character from their DNA. Good or bad, it’s in your blood and only they know how to find it. “That all the UTS citizens happen to be wealthy is merely a coincidence.”
Space Sweepers explores the way cultural rifts begin to form when a society begins to delineate between citizens and non-citizens. Citizens are treated with dignity and humanity, whereas non-citizens are subject to the whims of the corporation. The crew of the Victory is struggling under crushing debt as every fee seems to come with a new fee or tax, courtesy of UTS. It’s interesting that Sung-hee makes a distinction that the issue is not the notion of tax but that the tax is used as a way to keep the non-citizens poor and the citizens rich.
More than most sci-fi adventure romp Space Sweepers understands the value of money, both its salvation and corrupting influence. Sullivan is clearly modeled after real-life billionaires, a bookish but beloved tech mogul who merely wants what’s best… for him. Sullivan is hatching a plan that will destroy Earth and kill billions.
Enter Kang Kot-nim (Park Ye-rin) a little girl who can control nanobots. A deus ex-machina personified, Sung-hee is careful to make sure that both her presence and her character are more than a plot device. One by one she begins to melt the harsh exterior of each of the members of the Victory, predictably the grease-stained mechanic is the first to show his softer side.
But Kang’s appearance is the spark that lights the match, for she is the key to Earth’s destruction and its salvation. A fact that confuses the crew of the Victory but delighted me to no end. A terrorist group known as the Black Fox kidnapped her only to lose her and have her be found by our loveable rogues’ gallery. Of course, they offer to sell her but before the transaction, they stubbornly grow a conscience and try to save her.
I appreciated that Sung-hee found ways to subvert certain tropes. The Black Foxes, for example, a supposed eco-terrorist organization are in fact just other salvagers attempting to save the Earth. “If Mars with its environment can be turned into green land, then why couldn’t Earth be?” They are the rebuttal to UTS and Sullivan’s grand vision, if you have all this money and technology why leave Earth? Why not help it?
Even the droid, Bubs, is a wonderful little subversion. A clunky exoskeleton of metal, Bubs lives on the outside of the ship but dreams of one day buying a skin suit so she may present as a woman. In most sci-fi movies the droids are given little to no real thought unless as plot motivators or comic relief. But Bubs is part of the crew and even bonds with Kang and is taken aback when the little girl calls her a “lady”.
The moment is sweet because it shows that more than anything for Bubs, it’s more than being a human she desires, she wants to be seen as a woman. Hae-jin does a lot with simple voice modulation allowing Bubs to rise from the stereotypical surly droid to an actual character with hopes and dreams that are viewed without derision. Bubs as a character is treated with the same dignity and love as the rest of the crew.
The actors have the difficult task of playing it straight but also having to be wary enough as to not be high camp. The result is that each actor leans into the archetype they’ve been assigned and plays them with obvious relish. Seon-kyu as the ex-Cartel leader turned space mechanic might be my favorite with Tae-ri the swaggering Captain as a tie. Captain Jang gets the least development, with the exception of a random backstory towards the end, but Tae-ri fills in the blanks with her quiet steely gaze as she commands the ship.
My one real complaint about Space Sweepers is that it spends too much time on Tae-ho, the grieving pilot in search of his missing daughter’s body floating in space. At times Tae-ho’s story arc threatens to overwhelm the movie at the expense of the other characters. None of this is Joong-ki’s fault, so much as an unwieldy script that may be a little too scatterbrained at times. Tae-ho as a character, out of all the crew of the Victory, has the most conflicted emotional development and Joong-ki manages it with an effortless resolve.
Space Sweepers is possibly one of the most humane sci-fi adventure films in recent memory. It understands and shows the full spectrum of, not just sexuality, but of gender, and does so without batting an eye or tooting its own horn. Even though it is a South Korean movie there is a breadth of languages spoken throughout from English to German to Turkish. One character even has to break a monologue to complain about how the translators are broken and they can only hear German.
Sung-hee gives a future that embodies that great line from Spaceballs, “F*ck, even in the future, nothing works.” Engines jam, translators cut out, doors get stuck, the world of Space Sweepers feels lived in. Though much of it is shot with CGI it still has a tactileness that gives the film a sort of well-worn feeling lacking in most modern special effects-driven blockbusters.
Byun Bong-son finds the balance between filming Space Sweepers as a sweeping epic polish blockbuster while not betraying Sung-hee or the production design team’s attempt to make the world feel used and neglected. Bong-son films the space fights like a mixture between a submarine fight and an aerial battle, breathing new life in the sub-genre of space-ship battles.
Bong-son and Sung-hee find ways of using a harpoon in space and using the lack of gravity which means there is less resistance, for some thrilling battle scenes between salvage ships and military ships. The battle sequences never feel like a video game cut-scene. Instead, make us feel as if we are in the thick of it as ships roll, spin, and careen by Bong-son’s lens.
It’s hard not to love a movie that finds a way to have fart jokes and have critiques of capitalistic industrialism to boot. Space Sweepers is a wonderful adventure film with a great big heart and a healthy skepticism of the elite. It wears its genre tropes proudly and lovingly on its sleeve.
Image courtesy of Netflix
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