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[Movie Review] Space Sweepers is a fun popcorn adventure with deeper themes

Highly-anticipated space opera Space Sweepers, originally slated for last summer, just released worldwide, and it’s exactly what I needed at this moment. South Korea’s first space sci-fi movie is set in a dystopian future where Earth is dying and the only place left to colonize is up, its world rife with the inequality that always accompanies imperial expansion. The film feels vast, expensive, thrilling, and gives me strong Cowboy Bebop vibes, which will never not be a good thing.

Directed by Jo Sung-hee (Phantom Detective, A Werewolf Boy), it centers around the hapless and always-in-debt crew of the ship Victory, which seems held together with twist ties and sheer stubbornness. They’re the best team of space sweepers around—part of a poor underclass of garbage bounty hunters who hunt down and haul space trash to avoid damage to space stations and satellites. The crew come across Dorothy, a robot indistinguishable from a real human child, who they’re told is dangerous and wanted by both the space government and a mysterious terrorist organization called the Black Foxes.

Song Joong-ki plays Tae-ho, a man fallen from grace and tortured by a tragic loss, desperate to make money by whatever means possible to recover what’s most important to him. I didn’t know until now how much I wanted to see scruffy, bitter Song Joong-ki—it’s great to see him doing something different from the many smooth-faced, suave and always-in-control leading men he’s played in the past. Rounding out the crew of misfits are Kim Tae-ri as badass genius Captain Jang, Jin Sun-kyu as fierce-looking secret softy Tiger Park, and Yoo Hae-jin as android card shark Bubs. They’re all disappointed by life and have been spit out by the empire in various ways, simply trying to scrape a living when they meet the child-robot who will change their lives. Also in the mix is the powerful genius Sullivan (a nearly unrecognizable Richard Armitage), whose Mars colony project is touted as humanity’s only hope for survival.

Space Sweepers is a perfect popcorn film, hugely enjoyable and full of great ideas. The world it creates in 2092 is totally believable in that it’s both very different and exactly the same as ours: a planet dying due to our own exploitation and abuse; an elite class who have given up on earth and are looking to highly expensive space travel as the answer; a genius white dude who claims he will solve all our problems with technology. (Elon Musk, is that you?) Jokes aside, this is a very plausible future given where we are now, and that grounds the sillier elements of the movie in real stakes, giving the action scenes a certain weight and scariness that I wouldn’t feel in, say, a Star Trek movie. Most of all, it gave me the stylishly grubby found family feels of Cowboy Bebop and Firefly without any of the alienating toxic masculinity.

There’s so much visual interest in the way this setting has been imagined. I love the griminess of it all, the space trash and broken tech appropriate for a space opera with a strong environmental message. Placing Space Sweepers almost a hundred years in the future allowed the filmmakers to create technology without having to worry about explaining how it works. The production design is full of great details, like spaceships for mass travel reminiscent of commercial airplanes, the characters’ salvaged and repurposed belongings, and the shiny, terrifying Space Guard armor that stands out in the dirty and dark places where they patrol and kill.

My favorite of these is probably how everyone always speaks their own language, using universal translators to communicate across linguistic barriers. At first my brain felt like it was twisting itself into knots trying to reconcile what my ears were hearing with the subtitles, but I got used to it pretty quickly, and I really enjoyed seeing the movie populated by such a diverse array of peoples and languages. There’s an equalizing effect to it that stands in contrast to the global dominance of English in our world today—a hegemony which still exists in the movie, but is at least mediated somewhat between individuals by the earpieces everyone wears.

The film is full of elements like that, fun pieces of world-building that also carry a subtle commentary. I appreciated its critique of the inequalities inherent to a system where citizenship is the ultimate value of a human—the way governments use narrative and military force as twin tools of domination and subjugation, and the institutionalized class stratification that keeps people in an endless cycle of poverty. That was surprising in a film which is essentially a summer blockbuster full of space battles and explosions. It’s not a perfect movie—a couple of scenes with non-Korean actors felt a bit hokey, and the Korean dialogue is far superior to dialogue in other languages. The film also recycles that Korean action/disaster film trope of a father whose endangered young daughter serves as the source of all his moral development and pathos—which always gets me, but is no longer surprising.

Still, the core performances are solid and moving, the aesthetics are gorgeous, and I was never bored despite the movie being slightly bloated. It’s been a long, sad year for many reasons, and one small thing I miss dearly is the pleasure of going into a dark theater and enjoying a loud movie. It’s winter where I live, but I feel almost as though I experienced a summer blockbuster for the first time since the pandemic started. It’s a shame for the filmmakers that they weren’t able to release this on the big screen, especially considering that it’s the first Korean movie of its kind, but it is a nice gift to us. Sometimes you just want to see a cynical band of adorable misfits blasting bad guys and saving the day.

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This was a cute but okay movie. The little girl is adorable. It was also a movie I wasn't expecting, I thought it would a fun space romp, but it was only partially that. It had the usual corporate shenanigans and a basic apology. It was also oddly bloodless, where there should have been some blood. All that to say it was fine for what it was, lol.

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Well, I wrote my comment before I read yours. We are really cute twinsies!

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Of course, 😍😁.

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Despite my love of kdrama, my familiarity with Korean movies, other than Bong Joon Ho's work, is very narrow and shallow -- is casting of established and known Western actors like Richard Armitage common or is this still a rarity?

I would also dispute the characterization of Firefly as having a strong element of toxic masculinity, Joss Whedon's apparently well-deserved fall from grace notwithstanding, I always found that show did a good job of puncturing Mal's cowboy self-satisfaction and poking fun of Cobb's gung-ho nonsense was the character's raison d'etre.

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I agree with you about not finding Firefly filled with toxic masculinity and your thoughts about Mal and specially Cobb's. All female characters in Firefly were not precisely damsels in distress.

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I wouldn't say Firefly had a strong element of toxic masculinity, and I absolutely loved the show (although I don't know if I could go back and watch it now), but it was definitely there. More subtle and self-aware than a lot of other sci-fi though, for sure.

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I was responding to your comment that it was sufficiently present to be alienating, which was inconsistent with my experience as a devoted viewer. To the extent your criticism is valid, I would offer the criticism must then be valid for EVERY show of that particular genre or similar milieu (which, I guess, very well could be.)

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That's fair! And of course, each person's viewing experience is different.

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I literally just finished and while I really appreciated the diverse cast members, visuals and good performance, there was some part that I fast-forwarded in the middle. The quintessential white male trying to destroy the world... Quite realistic as well! Overall a good movie for a Saturday night (especially since it was supposed to be carnival weekend where I live... But well, covid).

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Thank you @laica for the nice SPACE SWEEPERS review and thank you Netflix for streaming this film. It is a d**n shame that we were not able to watch this on the big screen as a summer ‘blockbuster’.
I have not watched it yet but I am sorry that the early returns are rather negative. I am glad @laica you enjoyed the film and I am looking forward to watching it soon. I may offer another comment later.

O/T. I recall going to the AMC 25 on 42nd St in Manhattan one Saturday in August of 2019 and enjoying the Korean ‘disaster action comedy’ film EXIT with Jo Jung-suk and Im Yoon-ah. It was great. It was a summer blockbuster (in Korea) but I left the theater feeling like it was one in the USA also.

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Thank you for the review @laica. Although I can’t technically find fault on the acting or production, you can tell they really tried their best, the story line/plot was not as strong as I would have liked. And I would preferred if the sweepers all died at the end. I didn’t feel a great emotional connection to any of them (except Tiger Park—his scenes with the little girl hit all the right notes) and their deaths would have meant more to the story. (And more in line with traditional Asian storytelling as well, perhaps?)

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but then you won't have season 2 :D

aka guardians of the galaxy

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I wasn't expecting the nanorescue, and I didn't mind them being alive at the end. But I guess the girl had already lost her family, she couldn't lose her found family again.

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I thought the reason they had to get the out of the way was because the nano robots would be destroyed and so she’s be sick again (and unable to help earth) so I was confused by the nanorescue…

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Here's a thing..

movie scared me because one particular aspect is a very very very real possibility

living on Mars and making earth the dumping ground. Rich moving out, poor left to survive in toxic waste..

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Also, people should start entertaining the idea that instead of searching for advanced aliens, we may truly be the first complex living beings in the universe..

eons later.. earthlings might just be the first ancestors of inter galactic world

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No worry about that. Mars is a toxic hell-hole 100 times less amenable to life than the south pole at its worst. And I suspect we'd all get pretty sick of spending a billion taxpayer dollars every time Mars resident needed a new shipment of toilet paper.

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I'm reminded of what a Chinese critic once said of current Chinese sci-fi films. Their inferiority complex (vis-a-vis Hollywood) compels them to *try too hard*. To use an old 'This Is Spinal Tap' reference, they dial everything up to 'eleven' though keeping it at an 'eight' or 'seven' would've made for a better film.

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I really enjoyed this movie. With the way movie distribution usually works it’s unlikely I would have to able to see this in a cinema. I got a lot of Firefly and Farscape vibes from it.

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May I also add a bit of Killjoys and The Expanse regarding the aesthetics? (not the themes, The Expanse is hard sci-fi).

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It wasn't the greatest movie but it was pretty entertaining. I think they missed the way they introduced the main characters. It was a little bit confusing : the mafia guy was the machinery guy, the engineer was the captain and the gun girl the perfect soldat was the pilot.

I really loved to hear all these languages, it was really fun. Maybe because I'm Swiss and I used to hear a lot of different languages, it didn't bother me.

For a first korean movie, they did pretty well for the CGI. It never disturbed me from the story. I was pretty impressed.

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I really didn't realize when it was English and Korean, but then I heard Russian, Chinese, French, German, and... Spanish!! I loved it!

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I agree. This would've been better in theatres. Honestly, I didn't have any expectations when I watched this which helped me be pleasantly surprised on how good it is. Its not perfect but its a fun watch nonetheless. I like Kim Tae Ri's character, Captain Jang, the most. Tiger Park and Dorothy are just adorbs together. I also appreciated the social commentary in what is wrong in that world and hopefully we can take action now. I love those ear-piece translator thingies and was a brilliant and practical solution since the movie have an international cast, imo.

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I enjoyed the movie. I’ll just get that out of the way before I completely dump on a couple things that bugged me a whole bunch.

***SPOILERS for anyone who hasn’t seen it***

Oof, if she could just save them from that far away in the first place, why did they make the “sacrifice” of flying away? They kept doing that old trope of “Oh he/she didn’t ACTUALLY die,” and it started to wear pretty thin for me. It would have been a far superior ending if they did in fact sacrifice to save the world (And I think it would have given extra meaning to their ship name). And the villain was pretty generic/one note. The performances from the non korean main cast was also hit or miss.

As for the things I did like: Visuals were great! CG was good, and the world felt grimy and lived in, but still super colorful. The story, while not groundbreaking, still hit me right in the feels a couple times. I’ve long been a proponent of some of the best origin stories being something akin to “Deep regret/loss caused by the protagonist, who spends their life making up for it,” and this one hit me just right. I liked the whole crew actually, even if they weren’t all fleshed out to the same degree.

Solid movie, worth a watch, but not something I’m going to go out and rave about to others.

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I agree with you on the nanobot. If I understood right, baddies planted the bomb cos that was the only way to destroy the nanobots in the girl. So how then did that very nanobot saved them and not get destroyed in the blast?

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***SPOILER***
And with those superpowers, why didn't Dorothy save her father? This bothers me the most.

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Popcorn movie is a great way to describe this. It was the perfect Friday night watch - after a long week, sit back and be entertained. I also really enjoyed hearing all the languages flying about and thought that was a nice touch. And it was definitely unsettling to see the earth in 2092 precisely because it doesn't feel implausible.

The crew's chemistry was fun, they were adorable with Kot-nim, and I am totally a sucker for ragtag confederations, so loved seeing the other sweepers, too.

CGI was well-done, story was perhaps a bit predictable but had some good twists, but my biggest complaint is really that it could have easily been 30 minutes shorter. Would have loved to see it in the theater, but it was a treat to just sit back and be swashbuckled for a bit!

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This film would be Korean summer blockbuster... but unfortunately, it was canceled its theatrical film release only due to Covid-19 but thankfully, Netflix saved us from too much risks or dangers of getting the longest postponement ever did. The Korean hub of Netflix did a great job and at last, I hope that Netflix and other Korean legal streaming websites will surpass the cinemas by this decade onwards.

For Space Sweepers, it was like a combination of Star Wars and Star Trek into one big Korean first-ever space opera film that fits to this epical tale.

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@laica Thank you for this review. I liked the film in spite of some of the flaws. As you mentioned, I was reminded of the series Firefly, because it centers around a band of misfits who are trying to carve an existence in a hostile galaxy. My favorite character was Bubs :)

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I actually really enjoyed this movie. Yes it was out there and silly in some respects, but i had a smile on my face while i was watching it. In these dark times any joy we can get its priceless.

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I liked it a lot! I could see the faillings - the somewhat predictable plot, the hammy baddie, the weird accents (we honestly couldn't understand the Spanish bits, those weren't subtitled on our Netflix version), but the lovable rat pack crew, the underlying comments on class and sustainability and the cool production design won me over.
Anyway, the premise strongly reminded me of a kids' comic we all love here at home, Space Dumplins by Craig Thomson - class comments, access to living areas, even the job of space Sweepers, it's all in this book from 2015 😉

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Actually SJK wasn't THAT bad in Spanish, although it happened to me too, that I could totally understand him, but it was a nice surprise.

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LOL i couldn’t understand some of the English! Good thing it was still subbed..

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I liked it. Cute is the word I would use to describe it.
I had a great time while watching, the only thing is that it may be a too long. I've always said that unless you're Gone with the wind, you shouldn't need more that 1:45 minutes to tell a story.
Anyway, I loved how every character spoke their own language. It was fun listening to SJK speaking Spanish. Not that bad, not that bad (I even have hopes about his Italian, although Spanish phonetics are more similar to Korean than Italian's).
I was a bit disappointed with Richard Armitage who is one of my favourite British actors... why do I always have the feeling when watching a Korean drama or movie that non Korean actors are doing a terrible job? I really love Richard Armitage, and he's just so laughable as a villain here... not even his diction was good (and gosh, his "Are you coming home with me?" in North and South is probably one of my favourite lines in TV history).

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I deeply love Richard Armitage in North and South (among other things). Disappointing he’s not so good in this.

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Yes, the translating devices was a really cool idea! About the Spanish bits, I have to confess that after all these years, I still watch Spanish movies with subtitles - I'm totally fluent, but I struggle with accents I'm unfamiliar with 😓 In my defense, my kids didn't understand the Spanish bits either, the weird thing is that it wasn't so much SJK, the guy from the organisation was hard to understand too

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Ah, you had to stir up those memories of Richard Armitage, North and South. I'm going to have to go watch that scene at the train station again.

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That's what I did after I finished the movie...

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I did not recognize him, Richard Armitage, I thought he was just one of the random white actors the Korean entertainment industry likes. He was awful in this, the only other thing I've ever seen him in was the masterful American TV series Hannibal and he was excellent in that.

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@eazal I enjoyed that each actor was speaking in his/her native language. However, the line delivery from the foreign actors was off and stilted. The said their lines as if they were reading from cue cards. Even Richard Armitage's performance was hit or miss.

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I can't prove it, but I've long suspected that the directors request the foreign actors to "speak clearly so they can be understood" which results in slow, deliberate speech that sounds unnatural and stilted. It has to be hard to act your heart out when you can't speak naturally.

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A lot of the lines sounded to me as they had been translated into English from Korean, and not in the most natural way, so I feel like some of the stiltedness might come from that.

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The flow of the movie was rushed but was inevitable in the short time. The kid element was fantastic in all scenes but to overall world was to random. The reason the bad guy was bad was told but was a really lame excuse. The disease he had was never explained, perhaps it was nanites too but there was no explanation of how they became unruly whenever he got angry. For as stellar a crew with their various abilities and how special and fast their ship was they never really presented as superior. I mean its that far in the future and they are still manipulating big levers and steam valves etc??? If the captain was a genius why is her little 100 piece hidden rifle thing the only weapon she could bring to bear? Even if that was it....that far in the future why not have it remote mounted and computer controlled for faster target acquisition and her not having to bungee herself to the tailgate to fire the thing???

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I just realised that they never explained his weird veins!! Yes! Why the hell did he turn into Hulk at random moments?!

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This is a really good and nice summer popcorn fun movie, if we had been able to make it to the cinemas.

But I still liked it,it reminds one of Guardian of the Galaxy, but with a Korean take on it, and really novel that all wear an earpiece to understand others speaking other languages. I wish such creation is available now.

But great job to the Korean cast and production as this movie needed alot of crew production to drive up its value.Thanks to the Flix for bringing this to our region.

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Surely it is an entertaining movie, and I do enjoy it. But I don't think the issues it mentioned have enough time to discuss. Matt Damon's Elysium also have the richest 1% living in space colony (and Elysium only have one, Space Sweepershave quite a lot of modules it almost like a metropolis), as well orbital garbage, social inequality, environmental disasters, let alone all 4 main characters have a pretty complicated background (the main antagonist? Not so much--too bad you found The Hobbit Trilogy's Richard Armitage to play that role, and it's pretty much wasted him ... The Director is way to ambitious, so everything the movie touches are so shallow. I guess Space Sweepers have an opportunity to go big on all these, issues, plots, characters ... and the end product is like a lost opportunity.

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While I found the movie entertaining, I was a bit disappointed they didn't make a part 1 and 2. The movie introduced some really interesting themes I wished they would've had more time to explore. I've also long been a fan of Richard Armitage (he vastly stole my heart in the Robin Hood series!) and would have like to seen more of his character.

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Yeah, @lillamy, I guess if they break the whole movie into 2 parts, all those issues as well the presence of Richard Armitage (I like to explore his backstory as well) won't be wasted. Now it is too rush.

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Yes, I agree with your comment above. The movie represents a lost opportunity. What a waste of talent.

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@laica you should watch Warewolf Boy if you want to see unkept Song Joong Ki.

I personally like that film vey much because he had so little lines so he had to act more with his body language

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I've been wanting to see that one for years! I keep forgetting about it though. Maybe I'll watch as I wait for Vincenzo lol

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And he does it well!

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