“With Earth no longer habitable, the only place left to go was up.“
In 2020, Bong Joon-Ho changed cinema forever when he collected the Academy awards for 2019’s Parasite, but it was his speech at the Golden Globes which would leave a lasting effect on some audiences, when he said; “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” How timely a comment this was; for as the world went into pandemic lockdowns, many of us found ourselves looking for new media to enjoy. Streaming services like Netflix were ready; supplying some of the best films from around the world to those of us stuck at home. The on-going renaissance of Korean cinema, elevated in the west by the likes of Joon-Ho and Yeon Sang-ho (Train To Busan), has led to more appetite for what that island is offering; and Netflix has responded by serving up Jo Sung-hee’s Seungriho, translated into English as Space Sweepers; a film which is being regarded as Korea’s first big budget outer-space scifi film. Does it live up to its predecessors?
Set in 2092; a year in which Earth has become practically uninhabitable, we follow the crew of the Victory; a junker spaceship that collects space debris. They sell this junk to the UTS corporation, who have built an orbital utopia for those humans deemed worthy of salvation from the ruined planet. The Victory is led by Captain Jang (Kim Tae-ri), along with engineer and former gang leader Tiger Park (Seon Kyu-jin), ex-military android Bubs (voiced by Hae-Jin Yoo) and pilot Tae-ho (Song Joong-ki), who serves as our focal character. While searching for sellable debris, the Victory’s crew comes across an abandoned transport with a young girl hidden in a storage compartment, who has been identified by the news networks as a stolen android called Dorothy (Ye-Rin Park); who was kidnapped by a terrorist group called Black Fox and fitted with a weapon of mass destruction. The crew go about returning Dorothy to Black Fox in return for a ransom, and start to uncover the truth behind the bombing plot.
As is the trend with dystopian sci-fi, a major theme of Space Sweepers is survival. The crew of the Victory all became space sweepers for different reasons, all of them steeped heavily in tragedy. Their interactions with each other and with Dorothy point to complicated relationships on board the ship, and the three central actors do well to carry this intricate scenario off. Before we find out any of the backstories, we learn a lot about who these characters are from these interpersonal interactions, and surprisingly, all of them are actually quite unlikable. Tae-ho in particular, despite being our focal character, is demonstrated quite early on to be an incredibly skilled pilot and quite a horrible person, focused solely on the acquisition of money. It’s only as the narrative continues and we learn more about how the crew came together and who they were before that we find out who Tae-ho truly is and what motivates him, and the life he has led to that point. Song Joong-ki is excellent in this role, managing Tae-ho’s arrogance as a pilot and balancing it perfectly against his relentless pursuit of money, which is linked to a tender and tragic event from his past. Song displays a bevy of emotions in his performance, and is at his best when he is trying to hide his paternal instincts when dealing with Dorothy. She is the linchpin for the majority of the character development of the crew; everyone’s interactions with her allow us to see more of who they are inside, beyond the bravado they display to their crewmates. It’s a credit to the script and to the direction of Jo Sung-hee that we see so much between the words, with the physicality of the crew (and of the cast as a whole) revealing another layer of emotional development, be it complimentary or contradictory to the script in the moment; and grounding this extra depth from the Victory’s crew around their interactions with Dorothy is incredibly effective as a narrative device.
While the Victory’s crew are very much at the centre of this story, they aren’t the only characters we forge a link to. Richard Armitage is on deck as Sullivan, the CEO of the UTS Corporation and a man who is very much the villain of the piece. Armitage seems to be having a lot of fun in his first Korean film, and does not shy away from a more over-the-top, cartoonish performance when the script calls for it, which adds a lot to the more bombastic action set-pieces that his character is involved in; and provides a nice palette cleanser after some of the more emotionally-driven scenes featuring the crew of the Victory. A very effective narrative direction is employed with Sullivan; we’re told in our introduction to him that he’s over 100 years old, but other than that, we don’t learn a lot about him; and that mystery adds a sense of danger to some of his more unusual physical and emotional attributes. The cartoonish elements are in play for some of the other supporting cast members as well, though with less screen time denoted to them, they feel a little more like stereotypes or caricatures; though not always to the detriment of the character or the actor. Kevin Dockry makes a few brief appearances as French space sweeper Pierre; a handsome, rugged young man who spends most of his screen time declaring his undying love for Captain Jang; and while it represents a well-established stereotype in a very typical way, his deployment within the narrative is used effectively in multiple ways, including introductory character traits for Captain Jang, and as comic relief later in the narrative.
The joy of Space Sweepers doesn’t just come from its acting however; the effects in this film are wonderful; and the blending of CGI elements with physical sets is impressive. UTI’s security forces come in the form of robotic soldiers, who have a fresh but familiar design and fit into the narrative world very effectively. One action-packed scene featuring an assault on a nightclub demonstrates this particularly well, with the soldiers causing havoc amongst the human population in a slickly-realised and cleverly shot sequence that does well to blend those CGI and physical elements together. The wider world design is also great; borrowing elements from a multitude of sci-fi predecessors and blending them with design elements from real-world space exploration equipment to create inventive space stations and space ships, that are interesting and fun new takes on the design elements, grounded in a welcome sense of familiarity. The action sequences, be they on foot or in ships, are slick and exciting every time; with each sequence existing to help move the narrative forward and provide more opportunities for character development (something which some of the larger Western action films would be well served to take a look at ahead of future upcoming releases).
Space Sweepers is a welcome addition to the world of sci-fi action movies. An incredibly fun action romp with a heart of gold and a moral backbone, supported by strong performances from an excellent cast, and well-executed action scenes that blend exciting physical drama with expertly crafted CGI. If you’re in the mood for a fun space movie, you could do so much worse than to spend a couple of hours with the crew of the Victory. Make some popcorn, grab your glasses and enjoy.