SPACE SWEEPERS (2021)
Korea’s first ever space blockbuster is ambitious and visually magnificent, if mildly callow and contrived, as a crew of space scavengers stumble across a wanted humanoid girl
While Korean cinema has made seismic leaps into certain blockbuster genres, perhaps most notably action and disaster movies, the intergalactic realm had stayed largely unexplored.
This is rectified with quite some pomp and ceremony in this ostentatious outing from director Jo Sung-hee, who has already demonstrated considerable directorial chops in both A Werewolf Boy (2010) and Phantom Detective (2015).
Recruited for such a vital mission alongside Director Jo is Song Joong-ki (A Werewolf Boy, The Battleship Island), Kim Tae-ri (The Handmaiden, Little Forest), Jin Seon-kyu (The Outlaws, Extreme Job), and a largely cameo-form Kim Mu-yeol (Forgotten, The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil).
Such talent has been blended with a special effects and production design unit that should expect a litany of awards for their work here, creating believable looking worlds and letting action scenes and battles play out with visual aplomb.
Therein lies the greatest victory and ultimate tragedy of the Space Sweepers release. It is the archetypal ‘must-watch-in-the-cinema’ release, denied one by the Coronavirus pandemic and jettisoned into the streaming world by Netflix instead. While this will afford it a larger global audience, it also robs the film of its major trump card – a visual feast served on the cinematic table it requires.
Set in the year 2092, with earth nearly uninhabitable, we meet the crew on The Victory, a space junk collector ship helmed by Captain Jang (Kim Tae-ri), a former special forces officer who later deserted her post. Alongside her is Tae-ho (Song Joong-ki), a past commander of the Space Guards, Tiger Park (Jin Seon-kyu), previously a drug lord who has since escaped Earth, and finally android Robot Bubs (Yoo Hae-jin).
This delinquent crew of outcasts make their measly funds by snatched space junk and returning it for minor funds and as such the entire crew are beset by crippling debt. As their desperation festers, they stumble upon Dorothy, a child humanoid wanted by authorities as this cute adolescent doubles as a weapon of mass explosive destruction.
However, rather than turn her in, they decide to sell this weapon to terrorist organisation The Black Foxes, ending the crew’s fiscal woes. But when the deal goes awry, they are left with the potentially explosive Dorothy on their hands.
If the focus of the film was on the visual spectacle it provides, there is scant criticism to lay. However, this is not a New Year’s Eve fireworks display, it is a film with a narrative spine, one with too many fractures to work at times.
While its basic story set-up, detailed above, works in the classic ilk of outsiders eventually forced to do the right thing, the story becomes messy. As if it were attempting to combine too many space action film tropes into a single outing. A cleaner, tighter final edit may have solved some of these problems.
There can also be a consciousness that a film is targeted at a specific slice of audience you no longer belong to. In the case of Space Sweepers, it is likely to muster a sizable teen following and with an ending that very much pointed towards sequel potential, expect just that.
Space Sweepers is still a sizable slice of raw fun and indicates that Korea’s first space blockbuster is the jumping off point for a more prolific future in the intergalactic genre.