Movie review: Space Sweepers (승리호)

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

Where did all that childlike wonderment and excitement about an idealised future go?

Once upon, in our ’50s-inspired, retro fevered dreams about what might lie down the road, we pictured flying cars, clean cities full of gleaming skyscrapers and rooftop gardens and people in luminously white smocks walking through parks in such a calm, contented daze that we had to assume they had not a care or worry in the world.

But that was then, and this is now, and in our new cynical world, beset by a pandemic, climate change, wars and a host of other trenchant issues, we now see the world through far darker, more despairing lens, the type that have given birth to many a dystopian tale including new Korean sci-fi film, Space Sweepers.

Directed by Jo Sung-hee, Space Sweepers sits very much in that bleak future view of the world we come to know so well, where the earth is a ruined, blighted, dust-filled nightmare, unfit for human consumption but packed with those too poor to leave even so, where the rich sit in floating orbital cities full of trees, large houses and blue, white cloud-speckled, skies, and the gulf between the 1% haves and the 99% have-nots is so great as to be impossible to breach.

So far, so standard dystopian you might think, and it’s true that the film exhibits more than a few of the world-in-peril tropes we are used to seeing in enar-to-medium future storytelling.

But for all the familiar touchstones of humanity’s descent into the environmental and societal gutter, Space Sweepers is also startlingly and engagingly original.

Primarily because even as it tells a well-worn story of a group of plucky misfits standing up to a shiny, bright but rotten to the core establishment, represented by James Sullivan (Richard Armitage), CEO of the ruling corporation UTS, in ways that shake the status quo to its society changing core, it is doing so in a way that challenges the convention that the catalyst for these types of uprising is an aggrieved sense of disempowerment and impoverishment.

That’s not to say issues of class and poverty aren’t present and fuly accounted for.

They very much are and you see it in the stark contrast between the glisteningly green idyll of the rich peoples’ orbiting Eden and the densely-packed, industrial hell of where the misfits, who crew the ship Victory (how’s that for irony in a name?) – as Tae-ho (Song Joong-ki),a former Commander of the UTS Space Guards, Captain Jang (Kim Tae-ri), former special forces operative-turned pirate, Tiger Park (Jin Seon-kyu), a sentenced-to-death drug dealer and Robot Bubs (Yoo Hae-jin) – reside, but also in the way that all the money these people manage to earn through the hard graft of scavenging space trash often comes to nothing as punitive fines and debts cancel them out.

This is a future world that, for all the grand talk of Sullivan, who is more than few moral sandwiches short of an ethical picnic in ways that are both archly camp and horrifyingly familiar, of creating a new and better world (one which oddly involves terraforming Mars, not rehabilitating earth), the poor are desperately poor and dying and the rich are deliriously unaware of the hell on the planet below them.

But rather than that being the powering force that sends the crew of the Victory on a quest to take down the powers that be, what turns them from understandably mercenary figures out for money and survival into compassionate souls wanting to fix the wrong of their much-broken world, is simply the overpowering need to save one small frightened but beautifully friendly young girl.

Dorothy / Kang Kot-nim (Park Ye-rin) is the girl in question, an artistic soul who adopts Tae-ho and his crewmates as family way before they even begin to think of her in those terms.

At first, all they want is the reward that comes from recovering and handing in Kot-nim but as they get to her, simply seeing the engaging young girl as a series of dollar signs becomes all but impossible and they have no choice but to look after her and get back to her father, which, it turns out, comes with all kinds of head-butting the establishment action-filled twists and murderous turns.

It’s easy to be fooled by the frenetic trailer into thinking Space Sweepers is simply a full speed head, pedal to the metal stick it to the man action sci-fi thriller.

And yes it is and in ways that you likely have in some form or other seen before; what really sets it apart and takes this film from familiar tropes to highly-affecting narrative is the emotional resonance that sits at the heart of the film.

The chief driver of this, and in effect the protagonist of the film is Tae-ho, a man who as a Commander of the Space Guards once sat at the pinnacle of UTS society but who now resides in the gutter with the unwashed poor (literally – water is expensive, as you might imagine, in space) and who is more aware than most of how great the inequities of this supposed future Eden actually are.

He is the holder of a tragic secret, one which complicates his relationship with Kot-nim and which, in the end propels of the gung-ho action the trailer goes to great, adrenaline-fuelled pains to showcase.

Time and again, it is Tae-ho, whether he is chasing up a way to deal with a lingering, chasm-like sorrow in his life or trying to keep Kot-nim safe, who is the heart and soul of the film, its moral compass in a world that has long surrendered its own to whatever prevails in the dog-eat-dog ethos that rules all human interactions.

We have, of course, had morally and emotionally conflicted protagonists before driving all manner of sci-fi action thrillers, but Tae-ho is a breed apart, simply because his is not a straightforward journey to a life changing epiphany, making it all the more interesting and fascinating to watch.

Space Sweepers, thanks to smart writing, vivacious performances and a great sense of fun that leavens out its adroitly-handled more serious moments, is not your average sci-fi battle against impossible odds films.

It has many of the hallmarks of the genre and makes enthusiastic use of them, but it is more nuanced, entirely more affecting and substantial a film than the trailer suggests, and you will emerge from watching Space Sweepers not simply hoarse from cheering the good guys on but all too aware of how our humanity, all too often lost in a present devoted to balance sheets and sectarian politics, is the key to a better future and must be nurtured and shepherded at all costs lest we lose the very things that make us human.

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