Space Sweepers movie review: South Korean film on Netflix seems unaware of its B-movie potential
Space Sweepers could have tried being an 'authentic' Korean film, set in space. But its English-speaking villain comes off as a ploy to leverage on the thriving K-pop culture in the West
castKim Tae-ri, Song Joong-ki, Kim Tae-ri, Jin Seon-kyu, Yoo Hae-jin, Richard Armitage
Before we delve into Jo Sung-hee's Space Sweepers, which is now streaming on Netflix, we need to first talk about an epidemic (of sorts) in the film industries across the globe. It's this tendency to make a film designed to seem 'global', in a manner where the production seems to be merely ticking boxes off. Indian character in a South Korean film - check. There seems no real thought into planting the character, except for peddling the notion of a 'universal entertainer'. We've seen similar examples in recent times, where a Sanjay Dutt agrees to a 'cameo' in a Kannada film like KGF, Nagarjuna playing a character in Ayan Mukerji's Brahmastra, or even Priyanka Chopra starring as the 'Indian connect' in Hollywood films like We Can Be Heroes. In a bid to appease most significant demographic of movie-goers, the choices seem triggered by dollar-hungry corporations, undermining the very ‘cause’ it claims to be fighting for.
Space Sweepers could have tried being an 'authentic' Korean film, set in space. But its English-speaking villain, in the garb of a 'crossover film' meant to represent the Korean film industry on the world stage, comes off as a ploy to leverage on the thriving K-pop culture in the West.
The year is 2092, and the film begins with visuals of a completely ravaged planet earth. People are walking around wearing masks, and the world seems to be engulfed in dust. Space Sweepers is also the kind of film that supplements these visuals with a voice-over that says something to the effect of 'All hope was lost...' - something Ryan Reynolds might (unless he already has) parody in Deadpool.
On the surface, Jo Sung-hee's film seems like the poorer, less-funnier, and an infinitely more derivative cousin of James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy films or a generic Michael Bay film set in space. Four 'space sweepers' — Tae Ho (Song Joong-ki), Captain Jang (Kim Tae-ri), Mr Park (Jin Seon-kyu) and a funny android, Bubs (voiced by Yoo Hae-jin) — are barely making ends meet by chasing debris and helping clean space orbits. All these characters are a 'type'. Tae Ho is a former commander with a 'traumatic past'. Captain Jang is a retired assassin, who has been deliberately relegated to a job like this, to feed on pennies. Mr Park is a former drug-lord with a 'heart of gold', who escaped Earth to dodge a death sentence. While Bubs is the cheerful android, an amalgamation of Rocket, Groot, TARS or any other non-human (with a sharp tongue) that come to mind. These four characters living on the fringes of a rebooted civilisation, where only the rich can afford clean air, find a little girl called Dorothy hiding in their ship. Dorothy, as they find out, is possibly a robot who might be mankind's last hope at survival, therefore presenting an opportunity for them to get rich.
This rebooted civilisation on Mars, is because of the concentrated efforts of a corporation called UTS, which is helmed by (who else but) a white man called James Sullivan (Richard Armitage). He seems like the kind of 'do-gooder CEO' like most of the Big Tech CEOs have projected themselves to be. He talks about sustainable farming, but when he's tasked with one 'difficult' question about reports alleging that he might be draining earth's resources to build this new private planet for the super-rich, the smile is wiped off his face and he clenches his teeth and says something to the effect of how 'HUMAN BEINGS ARE THE VIRUS'. It's hard not to be reminded of Agent Smith saying something similar to Morpheus in The Matrix at this point.
When I sat down to watch Space Sweepers, my expectations were, well, managed. But one of the film’s many shortcomings, is its inability to see the B-movie potential in itself. So much of it is borrowed from set templates within mainstream filmmaking, that even if the filmmakers were mindful enough to subvert audience expectation during key moments, or taken scenes to an unexpected place, this would have been a starkly different (and a much more improved) film. Instead, what the makers have done here is written the most predictable beats of a 'Sci-Fi, Space adventure', and placed them on an assembly line of set-pieces. Of course, the crew of space sweepers will grow fond of the child, and tears will be shed around the time the ransom changes hands. Of course, the trillionaire CEO will reveal himself as the evil mastermind, who is only the 764392th version of Lex Luthor. Of course, there will be a ticking clock where the 'unlikely' heroes will strive to save the child, and make the ultimate sacrifice. Of course, good will win over evil. This isn't even a spoiler in a movie so predictable.
Space Sweepers is the kind of vanity project that concerns itself with the little things like whether the leading man's hair looks perfect for his massive fan following, that it completely messes up the big picture. They can go ahead and accommodate as many communities, ethnicities or characters of the third gender. But in a pot luck of filmy references like this one, it will always feel dishonest and archetypal. Maybe the makers could've tried something with a limited scope, where every single creative decision doesn't seem fuelled by the sound of the cash register.
Space Sweepers is streaming on Netflix.
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