Korea’s First Space Film is Gratifyingly Global
Both epic in scale and hitting close to home, Space Sweepers tells the tale of a crew of misfits in a world aiming to leave imperfections behind.
The trailer is pretty stellar and I jumped in with an idea of where this film would go and hopes that it could provide the surprising twist that often characterizes Korean films.
While I enjoyed the narrative, visuals and arcs, I didn’t get the powerful plot shock I was hoping for. It is, however, entertaining with formidable space battles and relatable roles.
Ever since absorbing Star Wars as a kid, I have always LOVED a space movie. Focused on the best and worst of society in unfamiliar circumstances – the essence of humanness – what could be more compelling? Space Sweepers offers a nod to the genre with subtle glimmers of favourites from The Empire Strikes Back to Firefly.
It’s 2092 and the Earth is unsurprisingly if depressingly in tatters. Capitalism wins the century as one corporation’s leader, a scientific mastermind and self-proclaimed saviour of the world, offers a solution – if you can afford the ticket price.
Everyone else falls somewhere on the food chain from Sullivan’s trusted team to trash pickers. The salvage labourers – space sweepers as they’re known – live on cashing in whatever they can find in space, fighting each other for the biggest prize and generally owing more than they earn.
When pilot Tae-Ho, played by Song Joong-Ki, picks up the reward for the Victory crew’s efforts, it’s like the coal mining villages of old where his money goes straight back into the company store covering taxes, fees and damages for sloppy work. He’s desperate for dosh to find his child, who’s been swept away in a space accident and running low on time to find her.
Dorothy is a humanoid robot found by the Victory crew and identified as a weapon of mass destruction, hidden cleverly behind her sweet face. If they can manage to not set her off, they stand to earn enough to get them out of sinking debt. They just need to ransom her without clumsily getting caught.
Popular actor Song is recognisable from dramas Arthdal Chronicles, Descendants of the Sun (both Netflix), as well as box office hits A Werewolf Boy (Amazon, Viki) and The Battleship Island (YouTube), among others.
Kim Tae-Ri stands out as the ship’s Captain Jang. From movies Little Forest and The Handmaiden (both Amazon) to drama Mr Sunshine (Netflix) it seems she can do it all. And I can’t help but compare her to the no-nonsense Captain Mal of Firefly (Hulu).
An ensemble, the crew is rounded out by engineer Tiger Park, played by Jin Seon-Kyu who’s won awards for his work in films Extreme Job (YouTube) and The Outlaws (Amazon). Veteran film actor Yoo Hae-Jin appears in a host of films including the impactful A Taxi Driver (Hulu) and award-winning Intimate Strangers and provides the voice of humanoid robot and repairman Bubs.
Dorothy is played by seven-year-old Park Ye-Rin who also appears in drama Delayed Justice (Viki). Scientist and company leader James Sullivan is played by British actor Richard Armitage who appears in films from The Hobbit trilogy to Ocean’s 8.
The build on the relationship with Dorothy is pleasing where the crew start to treat her as a human child simply because she acts like one. It’s a nice touch development-wise that Tae-Ho is the last to fall for her, consumed with finding his daughter – like there isn’t room in his heart for other children.
Not yet rated, it will likely earn a PG as it seems fine for families though fast-paced, and a storyline clearly not aimed at children. Other than a couple of lines, there’s nothing overt and some (but not all) of the cursing is cleaned up in the Netflix translations.
Dialogue, although primarily in Korean and English, includes a host of multi-cultural characters using at least 12 languages and giving the film a universal feel rather than the dystopian and Korean-focused route it could have taken.
An early scene with sweepers swearing at each other in dialect is both humorous and hopeful – a world where everyone can be equally understood. The occasional shouting in Chinese, Russian, Arabic, etc., throughout adds to the fun and potentially serves to replace the collective of imaginative aliens that typically appear in space-based content.
The backstories for all the key characters are nicely divulged, making the emotional moments feel authentic and every one of those characters evolves over the course of the account. I was hoping for a bit more history on the baddie with details on how he lands his thinking, aside from an overarching belief that humans trashed the planet. Without something more personal, he alone comes off as one-dimensional.
Some of the space battles are tough to follow with a lot flying at you but there’s enough connective tissue in between chunks to stay with the flow and know whether we’re winning or losing. Here and there some of the subtitles don’t seem to match the audio or alternately audio that’s tough to hear so the text seems disjointed in places.
The music is just right in some spots and hard to find in others but uses the expected grand operatic soaring and crashing throughout poignant scenes. It works because it feels familiar. So, whilst it isn’t daring, it does the job of moving you with the dramatic action.
The set design combined with seamless CGI transports us to the future with wonderful details and a sharp contrast between the bright new green-and-blue world and a smog-covered beat-to-hell Earth.
Going for realism rather than the fantastical, it feels both pointed and unsurprising that the first wave of people saved from the dying planet seem comparatively pale and definitely privileged. It poses an all-too-believable if bleak warning of what the Earth could become in 2092.
A perfectly watchable and enjoyable movie, Space Sweepers is carried by characters for which you can cheer and wonderful visuals that don’t miss a beat. The only thing missing is the element of surprise in a format that begs for it. Otherwise, all the elements are present – strong backstories, great CGI, character arcs, dramatic narrative and a robot that wants to be human. Full of impactful moments it is certainly pleasurable to watch.