Now, I could have taken in Paul Greengrass’ critically acclaimed News Of The World with Tom Hanks for this weeks review, but you know what? I was not in the mood for another prestige picture, not after the bad taste that Malcolm And Marie had left in my mouth. Greengrass and Hanks will still be waiting for me in future weeks, but this time I wanted to watch something that looked a bit more fun, at least in the traditional sense. And Netflix, with plenty of recommendations from friends, was happy to provide, serving up what has been billed as South Korea’s first ever blockbuster space-opera.
My last Korean film was the excellent Time To Hunt, but this looked like it was at a completely different level, the Seoul film-making landscape taking a firm, decisive step into the mainstream with Jo Sung-hee’s effort. Going by the promotional material alone it must have cost them a bundle as well, and all for the pandemic to come along and prevent the big screen experience the film probably needed. It’s good for it to get a release all the same, and Space Sweepers certainly seemed like the kind of film tailor made for me in my mood last week: pandemic fatigue means you just want to see lasers and space ships, at least some of the time. Was it able to provide said relief, or was it not the right fit for a turn off your brain moment?
70 years in the future, the Earth is dying after widescale environmental collapse. As philanthropist and scientist James Sullivan (Richard Armitage) plans the colonisation of Mars for Earth’s most privileged, the crew of Victory – hard-drinking Captain Jang (Kim Tae-ri), former cartel leader Tiger Park (Jin Seon-kyu), ex-military robot Bubs (Yoo Hae-jin) and one-time soldier Tae-Ho (Song Joong-ki) – make a meagre living cleaning up space debris, all carrying the scars of the past with them. But when they find mysterious seven-year-old Kot-nim (Park Ye-rin) in their latest salvage, they are catapulted into an adventure with planet-ending consequences.
Space Sweepers is a film that really is trying to have its cake and eat it too. It does undoubtedly fulfill the needed quota of spaceships and lasers for it to be a at least a mildly entertaining sci-fi diversion, but on the other hand it also tries, frequently enough, to exhibit both a heart and a brain. You might well be wondering how such a thing could be perceived as a negative, and it suffices to say that I’m still not entirely sure of the ambition, because aiming that high can frequently leave a film coming up short: regrettably I feel like this is what has happened with Space Sweepers. But, at least that is a fault that is worthy of some respect in a way, instead of the film being a totally throw away exercise.
I mean, the very first thing that you have to get past is how obviously derivative Space Sweepers is. There’s Star Wars of course, and more than a little of Guardians Of The Galaxy. You’ll see plenty of Blade Runner in the design, there’s a hint of Elysium, a dash of Valerian, a few handfuls of WALL-E, I even got the distinct whiff of Titan A.E from a few of the visual motifs and design choices. The human MacGuffin makes you think of Firefly, Outlaw Star and Battle Angel Alita, the mega-corporation has shades of Weyland-Yutani of Alien. Oh, and there is most definitely a fair bit of one Cowboy Bebop being used as, ahem, “inspiration”. This isn’t a killer blow to the chances of Space Sweepers, it just means that it’s hard for it to really stand out. It’s the child of a hundred parents, and as homogeneous, in a sense, as they come. But, then again, maybe that is exactly what it wants to be, and who can fault them too much? That is where the money is nowadays. It just means that it lacks the impact it might have had.
All the same, Space Sweepers does actually make good on its colourful array of characters, as much as it can (the extended running time, where the film soars past the two hour mark, probably helps). Tae-ho is our main character I suppose, and there is something strangely endearing about his quest to find the body of his adopted daughter, sucked into the vacuum in a tragic accident a few years before and liable to drift beyond reach any day now (the evil mega-corporation needs a hefty fee payment to bother finding her). Jang is a bad-ass, but a but too dependent on booze to cover up the demons, Tiger has historical weight keeping him stuck in the engine room and Bubs, well, Bubs is cool: a military robot who provides the comic relief, while also striking a small blow for trans representation in sci-fi. She’s a robot with male mannerisms and voice, who most definitely identifies as female, and is saving money to make that identification as obvious as possible.
This really is what saves Space Sweepers, this motley crew of criminals and malcontents, who have a decent chemistry between them, even if it is very Bebop. Into the mix comes “Dorthy” really Kot-nim, a little girl with some very special powers and some very powerful enemies. Ye-rin is quite good in the part, playing her role entirely in scenes with adults who are often shooting at each other. Space Sweepers does good work in finding a reason for every member of the crew to become connected to her in some way, a living MacGuffin that at first is a means for financial enrichment, but then later a means for a badly wanted redemption. Scenes where every member of the crew, one after the other, interact and fall in love with her, are the beating heart of the film, but perhaps the effort to have all four of them have that time is a bit misguided: the effect has to be diluted, even as the running time expands and expands. And the spectre of melodrama undoubtedly raises its head over the landscape of the film long before the end, as the crew decides fighting for a single life is the same as fighting for the entire planet.
Standing in the way of the Victory crews’ sought redemption is Armitage’s Sullivan, an Elon Musk-type turned eco-facist and here’s a major sticking point. Armitage chews the scenery in a part that will in no way be high up on the list of his accomplishments. It’s “megalomaniac CEO” all the way, where the character literally has a line that goes “It’s not my fault all the best citizens are super-rich”. The criticism of super late-stage capitalism is incredibly on the nose (one character early on complains about paying debt with more debt) enough that you’ll be rolling your eyes long before Sullivan starts actively murdering people for the crime of being poor. This would be the “trying to have a brain” thing, where Space Sweepers is at pains to present a world where the poor, downtrodden intergalactic garbagemen of the world have to unite the destroy the 1%. I know it is hard to present such a theme with subtlety, indeed you might think subtlety is the enemy of such presentation, but the manner that Space Sweepers goes about its business on this score just makes the whole thing seem rather cartoony.
The visuals are where Space Sweepers really excels, even with the delivery method being on a much smaller screen than originally intended. This films looks great, from both a CGI and practical perspective. The effects are smooth and not at all garish, and while some of the action scenes tend to be a little confusing in a way, they are mostly quite enjoyable and entertaining. A lot of work has obviously been put into making sure that Bubs stays out of the uncanny valley, and seeing that robot utilising a harpoon on the outside of the Victory in space-based combat sequences is a genuine delight. Sometimes the Bayhem feel does come on, but for the most part the CGI work is quite good.
But Space Sweepers get even more props from me for its set work: in the interior of the Victory feels like the kind of grungy lived-in spaceship that you would expect from such a setting, and while much of the rest doesn’t exactly excel in terms of originality, the cyberpunk aesthetic is well-realised. Tae-ho might be zipping around Earth’s orbit with ease, but he still has holes in his socks. There are lots of neat touches and flourishes all over the place here, from the individual spaceship designs, to the giant holographic display machines for James Sullivan to tower over people. Costumes look cool, the universe has that sense of being thought out in the way that it works and it has that grounded feel of “not-too-distant” future. Stuff like the films use of language – an varied mix of Korean, English, French and even Danish at one point – makes that point as well.
So, Space Sweepers passes my test. I wouldn’t call it a good film, unless I was talking strictly about its visuals, which are pretty great for what it is, especially the practical stuff. And its cast, bar the examples of aforementioned scenery chewing, are also pretty good. Other than the film is predictably a little short on depth, undoubtedly a symptom of how many other films, TV shows and animes that is drawing the basis of its existence from. You can turn off your brain and enjoy the hell out of it, but I will admit that it doesn’t make me all that excited for the future of bug budget Korean sci-fi. That seems harsh now that I read it back, because there is a certain amount of imagination in Space Sweepers. But just not enough. Partly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).