Netflix‘s South Korean sci-fi adventure Space Sweepers (Seungriho) is the fourth feature from director Jo Sung-hee, whose previous credits include Phantom Detective, A Werewolf Boy and End of Animal.
In 2092, the Earth is dying. The planet is on its last legs, decaying and polluted and abandoned (by the wealthy at least) for an orbiting habitat, built by the ruling UTS Corporation. Those left behind in the murk and the ash are the poor and lower classes.
Tae-ho (Song Joong-ki) works aboard salvage ship The Victory, with his fellow crew members: Tiger Park (Jin Seon-kyu), humanoid robot Bubs (Yoo Hae-jin) and hard-as-nails Captain Jang (Kim Tae-ri). They operate as a clean-up crew, intercepting space junk to prevent damage to the satellite utopia above the planet. Think: The Guardians of the Galaxy, if they were super into recycling.
Things are not as utopian as they present, however. The Victory’s missions to retrieve and salvage cosmic detritus are heroic, but not well paid. Invariably, they accrue fines and wrack up debt and find themselves deeper in the hole than when they started.
Into their lives wanders Dorothy (Park Ye-rin), a seemingly small child, but in reality, a robot hydrogen bomb. Sensing a lucrative pay day that could finally make them solvent again, the crew negotiates to trade Dorothy to an infamous terrorist group known as the Black Foxes. But as their rendezvous approaches, is it possible they have fallen for Dorothy’s charms and become attached to her sweet and innocent nature?
Space Sweepers is an ambitious project, in both scope and visuals, and it looks exquisite. The effects work is incredible and the movie revels in the grimy, lived-in sci-fi aesthetic pioneered by the likes of Star Wars and Blade Runner and embraced by the genre ever since. The interiors of the ship and the space station seem to inhabit the same trash strewn, future ballpark as video game Cyberpunk 2077. While at other times, the style is reminiscent of Jean Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, evoking thoughts of Delicatessen in space, or the much maligned, yet visually striking Alien: Resurrection.
It’s a little disappointing then, that these lofty goals for epic space drama don’t really apply to the plot. The story is fine, but fairly predictable. It has just a bit too much in common with Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium, wherein rich people build an orbiting habitat for the upper class; as well as Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, where an everyman must save the galaxy and protect a dangerous weapon / person. There is also a bit of Wall-E and Silent Running thrown in there for good measure.
The action scenes are also baffling and at time incomprehensible. There is just too much going on and too many disembodied radio voices to fully track what is happening. This, unfortunately, is partly what holds Space Sweepers back.
It’s clear there was a lot of care and attention put in to fleshing out Space Sweepers’ universe and perhaps the issue is that it’s too much of a good thing. Because for every interesting invention or futuristic bit of tech, there is a lot of time spent sat around tables explaining things, betraying the number one storytelling rule of ‘show, don’t tell’. At 136 minutes long, you feel the run time towards the end, so maybe some of this beautifully constructed universe could have been left to our imaginations.
Still, Space Sweepers has the imagination of ten movies in its universe design and there is some fun to be had in this crummy, falling-apart existence. The universal translator, for example, is ingenious. Instead of a Star Trek-styled device where everything is vocalised in English, characters speak their own languages, yet all understand each other. So we hear people speak English, Korean and German amongst others. It’s a refreshing and novel take on a sci-fi staple.
Likewise, Bub’s simple, androgynous design is very fun. Part K2SO from Rogue One, part infant’s stick man drawing, they are a marvellously realised member of the Victory’s crew. And thematically, let’s be honest: Space Sweepers wouldn’t be a dystopia worth its salt if it didn’t invite us all to eat the rich.
Space Sweepers is an interesting piece of science fiction and it does have some nice ideas. It is unquestionably a good movie, but you just can’t shake the feeling it was this close to being a great one.
‘Space Sweepers’ is now streaming on Netflix – right HERE.