South Korea’s film industry hits another new height with their first space opera, Space Sweepers, directed by blockbuster specialist, Jo Sung-hee (Phantom Detective). Assembling a band of cheeky space misfits, Guardians of the Galaxy style, this sci-fi bonanza puts together unprecedented ensemble of casts in a dystopian space adventure. The star-studded casts to thrive among the stars ranging from Song Joong-ki (the director’s collaborator in A Werewolf Boy and star of popular drama, Descendants of the Sun), Kim Tae-ri (The Handmaiden), Jin Seon-kyu (Extreme Job), and Yoo Hae-jin (A Taxi Driver) with a special performance from Richard Armitage (The Hobbit Trilogy).
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The story sets in 2092. Earth has become inhabitable and a safe haven is built up by a mega-corporation UTS in the orbit to harbor the planet’s crème de la crème—the richest of the richest. This will lead to the birth of “space sweepers,” a band of scavengers who harvest space debris to make a living. The narrative revolves around a space-sweeping crew of Victory led by Captain Jang (Tae-ri) with a space prodigy, Tae-ho (Joong-ki), former convict, Tiger Park (Seon-kyu), and a versatile android, Bubs (voiced by Hae-jin) onboard. Their fortune begins to turn upside down when they discover an extraordinary little girl, Dorothy (Park Ye-rin)—a living weapon of mass destruction. She is sought after by all the strongest powers in the world, including UTS and factions of international terrorist militia.
Space Sweepers finds its spectacular moments in the introductory phase—where the story unravels the vibrant world-building that might look like a collection of borrowed elements from similar films. It’s a complex dystopian world that doesn’t resemble anything seen in Hollywood productions. It’s a diverse, international world and everyone’s allowed to cherish their own identity; you can see good people and bad people in any color without having to wear prosthetics or having a dominant race all over. Interestingly, there’s no need of any lingua franca; people can speak in their own language and the tech will do the rest (this is an element that was once incorporated in Bong Joon-ho‘s Snowpiercer). From there, the narrative navigates around the crew of Victory, delving with their backstories and goals. It’s getting heartwarming as the crews begin to band and bond together with the little girl, instead of handing her for bounty. It’s a cliché-ridden plot element but, up to this point, it works seamlessly amidst the film’s lavish production design and slick CGI.
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There’s an undeniably notion that Space Sweepers seems like a collection of familiar ideas thrown into one cramped space opera. It might look like Neil Blomkamp‘s Elysium in some parts, Guardians of the Galaxy in some other parts, or even Chinese space blockbuster, The Wandering Earth. At some points the recycled ideas work when the ensemble works together to drive the story forward. However, the narrative starts to falter entering the middle act as the film shifts the focus to individuals. While each character’s story is only moving forth in conjunction with the crew’s bonding with Dorothy; the occasional shifts hurt the pace and the emotional coherence. Dorothy (referred to as Kang Kot-nim later on) continues bonding with Park; meanwhile, majority of the drama will involve Tae-ho and his melancholic past. Captain Jang and Bubs’ story are left in the background; even though, the latter will eventually make a bold decision regarding its sexual identity—something that this Korean blockbuster handles with more respect than any Hollywood stories.
This space adventure story is inarguably strong in the beginning and quite satisfying in the end; however, the middle part composing the majority of its duration is terribly saggy. Some flashy yet predictable action sequences adorn the film’s most tedious segment, even when the execution feels more like formality than necessity. The story exudes right doses of melodrama when prompted and necessary dose of humor when it becomes too saggy. At the long least, the first attempt at exploring the space isn’t a futile attempt. Space Sweepers is still a fun blockbuster despite all the flaws.