The first and last half-hours of Space Sweepers, Jo Sung-Hee’s new Netflix movie, have some of the grandest, most fun space action we’re likely to see in a movie this year. It’s got a bit of a problem, though: in between those chunks is another hour-plus of movie that can’t really decide what it wants to be until it’s almost too late.
After an explosive introduction to the ragtag crew of the salvage ship Victory — devil-may-care Captain Jang (Kim Tae-ri), ship pilot Tae-ho (Song Joong-ki), wild engineer Tiger Park (Jin Seon-kyu), and their snarky robot companion Bubs (voiced by Yoo Hae-jin) — Space Sweepers slams the brakes on its momentum with all the strength of the massive harpooning cables the Victory uses to grab space junk floating in Earth’s orbit, taking a step back to slowly build up its world.
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Set in 2092, when Earth’s environment has been transformed into a toxic wasteland, the privileged elite of humanity has flocked into the arms of the UTS corporation, lead by self-appointed saviour figure James Sullivan (Richard Armitage, joining a surprisingly vast cast of international actors beyond the primary Korean cast). UTS promises the rich a utopia in the stars — beginning with idealistic space colonies in earth’s orbit, while the poorest classes are left to choke to death on Earth racking up corporate debt while making a living scraping valuable metals and minerals from space junk that threatens to enter Earth’s orbit.
It’s against this background that Space Sweepers initially frames itself as an at times surprisingly dark piece of class commentary. Contrasting the seeming nobility of Sullivan and the UTS against our “heroes” in the crew of the Victory — presented at first as cruel, selfish jerks who have all done bad things and are willing to do much worse to make a buck beyond their meager earnings as salvagers — the first hour or so of the movie is fascinating by a single question: in a society of haves and have-nots, what dark power does money hold over a person?
It’s a question examined across all sorts of characters we meet in Space Sweepers’ world, from Sullivan’s disconcerting view of human morality to both the crew’s frustration with the capitalist slog they find themselves perpetually indebted to and the aforementioned sniping and greed that emerges when they’re faced with the chance of earning even a few bucks more than usual. But it’s one made personable when, on a routine teardown of a derelict ship, the team discovers a young girl named Dorothy (Park Ye-Rin) as a miraculous survivor. However, they quickly learn via news channels that she’s a vastly-advanced android hijacked by a terrorist organisation and implanted with a massive bomb.
Now, Jang, Tae-Ho, Park, and even Bubs’ endless desire for cash has a seemingly-human face attached, as they decide to throw morals out the window and try and sell her off to the highest bidder between the UTS, the terrorists, or her apparent creator. Near misses with buyers and intense chase scenes suddenly find themselves cut between the Victory’s misfit crew slowly bonding over their young charge, and how that bond begins to clash against their desire to keep enough distance that they’re still willing to sell her off to an uncertain fate for millions of dollars. But for as much of a slow burn as it can be in these moments, they’re the most human and interesting of all to be found in Space Sweepers’ lavish sci-fi world, even as its exploration of greed and capital becomes increasingly of a cynical view that its heroes and villains alike are more than willing to do bad things for fiscal redemption.
But about halfway through, Space Sweepers twists with a few revelations on its central mystery of why people want Dorothy in the first place (and a few revelations about her) to almost entirely lose this moral core in favour of becoming a more clear-cut action-adventure movie, its heroes less nuanced people trying to get by in a harsh world and more noble underdogs fighting the big man. Sudden background revelations to soften their harsh edges, daring sacrifices that are handwaved with loosey-goosey sci-fi contrivances, the film almost turns on a dime into a found-family battle between good and evil instead of the more complex thing it initially set itself up to be.
And what it turns into is actually fine on the whole, if a bit less thematically dense. The action, both in space and on the “ground” of Space Sweepers’ multiple orbital environments is incredibly fun and there are some wonderful moments of CG grandeur that look genuinely dazzling. When they’re not at each other’s throats, the main cast loosens up to have a blast fighting their way through bulkily-armoured corporate soldiers or lancing through space in their souped-up cargo ship (Jin Seon-kyu and Yoo Hae-jin’s Mr. Park and Bubs, respectively, become gleeful scene-stealers).
But because the movie, clocking in at just over two and a quarter hours is so long and feels so long in that initial set up and murkiness, the harsh switch to a much brighter, breezy sci-fi adventure feels like an entirely different movie showing up to replace the one you were watching. It’s not so much of a tonal whiplash as almost two dueling miniseries in this single sci-fi world. Instead of being sure enough go down one path or another, Jo Sung-Hee decides he has to take us down both, no matter how awkwardly long it takes.
There’s a lot of potential in Space Sweepers’ world, felt as much in its most high-octane thrills as it is in trying to cram two different kinds of sci-fi movies into its overlong runtime. But its attempt in doing so only serves to ultimately rob the film of achieving true greatness — leaving us with some pretty cool space action wrapped around a decent, but aimless sci-fi adventure.
Space Sweepers releases internationally on Netflix today, February 5.