[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.