I’m a big sucker for science-fiction, as you might have guessed. Even cheesy sci-fi has a special place in my heart. So when Netflix premiered last week what’s been advertised as Korea’s first space-set blockbuster alongside a sleek-looking trailer, well my curiosity was piqued. I’ve seen tons of Korean-made movies before, but realized that space operas were an unusual blind spot for a culture that’s pumped out movies for every other kind of genre ranging from historical dramas to zombie survival. And I must confess that the trailer was the first one in months that really intrigued me, so what the Hell, let’s give her a whirl.
Taking place in 2092, we find ourselves in the usual dystopian Earth where a megacorporation owns basically every aspect of human life and our home planet has become an unlivable Hell-blasted landscape. Our heroes for this adventure are the crew of the Victory, a junk collecting spaceship, consisting of Pilot Tae-ho (Song Joong-ki), Captain Jang (Kim Tae-ri from The Handmaiden), Engineer Tiger Park (Jin Seon-kyu) and their sarcastic Robot Bubs (Yoo Hae-jin). While collecting scrap to pay for the Victory’s insane amount of debt, the crew happen upon a quiet young girl known as Dorothy (Park Ye-rin), who’s been identified by the evil megacorporation controlling the world as an android that’s secretly carrying a hydrogen bomb inside her. While initially terrified, the crew realize the girl may be their ticket out of debt as a terrorist group is willing to pay a handsome ransom to get her back.
Before I start getting into nitpicks, I have to say that the special effects on display are truly a sight to behold. They’re not quite Avatar-level fidelity, but there’s a ton of artistry and moving parts to appreciate the effects on their own. Hell even the rustic sets have a nice griminess to them. Yeah, yeah, I’ve slagged off tons of movies for having impressive computer generated images (CGI), but those films had piss-all else to enjoy besides their special effects. Space Sweepers (released as Victory over in Korea) at least gives you at least four fun characters to follow as they get into all sorts of trouble, which is about four more players than Michael Bay has been able to cook up in any of his Transformers movies.
Tae-ho, Jang, Park and Bubs all have different personalities from each other (I mean they’re the Four Humors, classic team set up), and all react to the presence of Dorothy in unique ways. They’ve all got their own histories that drive their attitudes, and each crew member has their own preferred style of fighting, walking, and talking trash. Little things about the characters endear themselves to me like Bubs saving up cash to buy a skin-graft to look more human, Jang’s devil may care dismissing of rival space junkers, Park being a big softie for a little kid like Dorothy. They’re small things but they do come together to create a feeling of warmth, or purpose, of wanting to root for these guys to pull off their goals. And while Dorothy herself may come across as a McGuffin to drive the plot, a human element to drive the story forward comes into play towards the end when certain revelations are made. Even if said revelations are delivered with as much as subtlety as a sledgehammer.
Without wishing to spoil the characters’ backstories, they’re all revealed way too late in the movie, and I seriously feel this information could have been given to us sooner without breaking the script in twain. And I know this, because Guardians of the Galaxy pulled off the same gambit effortlessly. This is especially true for your main point of view character, Tae-ho, who’s a bit of an enigma at first when he didn’t need to be. Several of the emotional highpoints of the first Guardians of the Galaxy come from Star-Lord, who’s introduced to us when he’s but a child and watching his mom die of cancer. The event drives who he becomes and how he’s able to overcome the final conflict of the film, while also providing a healthy bit of closure for the movie’s denouement. It worked wonders there and it would have seriously helped Tae-ho here, especially with his own relationship to Dorothy. The trouble is we are not provided with some pretty critical information explaining his behavior until long after it would have been relevant, when the stakes of the movie have changed dramatically.
Speaking of dramatic changes, there are several moments where the movie’s tone takes wildly sharp turns out of nowhere. For the most part, it’s a scrappy space opera through most of the movie’s runtime, but then Space Scrappers has some bizarre scenes of cartoon slapstick mixed melodrama about refugees and dying children. These lurches in tone chase each other, and it makes your head spin. Although I am assured that such a curiosity is apparently a staple of Korean cinema, particularly in its historical drama. So this may be a feature, not a bug of the culture that brought us this little adventure. Mercifully, these changes in tone are in a small minority compared to the pulpy swashbuckling nature of the story, so I’m feeling generous to overlook such an oddity.
But one thing I can’t overlook is Richard Armitage’s performance in this. Oh yes, my pretties, Thorin Oakenshield is here as the movie’s big bad. And when the camera is on him, he’s…something. Flip-flopping between a suave corporate leader and a grimdark robotic alien, the dude’s all over the place. So you can’t really predict what the heck is about to happen in any scene he’s gracing. On one hand, that makes for a great villain in terms of conflict; but on the other, the performance feels so mismatched and out of place. Which is especially true since our heroes really only have one pivotal scene with Armitage’s character before the final confrontation, but it’s also established that all of the protagonists have nasty histories with the same character. Their face off should have carried more weight, and Armitage’s villainous monologue to them just feels out of left field.
Still, despite my complaints, I must confess that I was still having fun despite these weird quirks. And it’s really due in no small part to the strength of the core cast engaging each other in fun ways. It makes the action onscreen feel authentic, and provides the movie with much needed stakes for any audience member to want to cheer the heroes on. When the action hits, it’s genuinely fun to watch with quite a few fist fights and spaceships gunning each other down. Hell, even the movie’s opening set piece of collecting trash is made infinitely more fun with solid banter and great editing for you to enjoy all the adventure on screen.
When the credits rolled, I was in a fantastic mood for just getting a nice pulpy sci-fi flick. It’s not particularly deep, but I didn’t need it to be. I just needed it to entertain me, and the movie succeeded in this very simple endeavor. The only reason it’s not getting a higher rating from me is that the critiques I mentioned pulled me out of the experience somewhat. Despite this, Space Sweepers is a solid…