Space, family, friendships and the environment – if Star Trek comes to mind, then wait until you see how the Koreans tackle the same topic, in Netflix’s latest Korean sci-fi Space Sweepers.
If you find yourself chuckling, there’s actually a good reason. While Korean dramas may have dominated the screens of your mom, girlfriend and K-boo best friend, they have rarely tackled a Western favourite, namely science fiction.
With a star-studded cast starring Song Joong-Ki (Sungkyunkwan Scandal, Running Man) as Tae-Ho, Kim Tae-ri (The Handmaiden, Little Forest) as Captain Jang, Jin Seon-Kyu (The Outlaws, Extreme Job) as Tiger Park and Yoo Hai-Jin (King and the Clown, A Taxi Driver ) as robot Bubs, Space Sweepers takes viewers on a journey across space as crew members of the Victory spaceship try to make ends meet by collecting and selling trash floating about in space.
Set in the year 2092 where humans have ruined the Earth beyond repair, architect James Sullivan (Richard Armitage) from UTS Technology finds a way to make Mars a habitable planet. Calling it Eden, Sullivan plays God and chooses who gets to live on Mars and earn citizenship, who gets to work on Mars via a Work Visa (though workers aren’t allowed to live in Eden, they live in a faraway place called the Factory) and who gets left behind on Earth.
The film starts off rather slow with the first 15 minutes of the show attempting to give viewers context of the world the characters live in. It does so in a less showing but telling way where a journalist calls Sullivan out for picking and choosing who gets to live in Eden or rot on Earth when on a visit to the architect’s office. It’s a valid concern – why invest your technology into making a new planet habitable when you can put it into making Earth a better place? Of course, Sullivan’s answer is simple: Humans have destroyed Earth, there’s no going back.
The film then introduces its main protagonists, the crew members of Victory. Made up of alcohol loving Captain Jang, timid Tae-Ho, flamboyant robot Bubs and the fierce Tiger, the crew is hardly a team. Whilst they each serve specific roles on the ship and travel across space fighting over scraps with other space sweepers, the crew doesn’t get along. Captain Jang leads with an iron fist, Tae-Ho is money-minded, cold and distant, Tiger is suspicious of his crew mates and Bubs hardly cares for anyone except herself. The only time they work well together is when making other space sweepers eat their dust else they’re fighting with each other over money.
It’s clear that the sweepers have their own hardships and goals in life – Bubs wants to get a skin graft and Tae-Ho wants to become rich and reconnect with a loved one in his past for example, but the movie doesn’t build up on each character’s back stories and motivations until they’re past the 1 hour mark. By then, it’s a little too late for you to care.
Whilst fixing their spaceship one day (night? Who knows?), the crew members find a child orbiting on her own and take her in only to find out that she is a walking ticking time bomb called Dorothy/Ko-Nim. Tae-Ho learns that UTS as well as a terrorist organisation called Black Foxes are in search of the child so he proposes to the team to sell the child in exchange for US$2 million. Everyone agreed and made great preparations for the exchange until things went sideways. The team once again finds themselves stuck with Ko-Nim roaming their ship and not a single cent richer.
Tiger later develops a soft spot for Ko-Nim and it doesn’t take much for the rest of the crew to follow his lead. Ko-Nim becomes the common denominator and friendships soon blossom between the members. It’s hardly a narrative that is unique nor compelling enough to keep viewers going for the whole 2 hours.
Action starts to pick up after the crew learns of UTS’ evil plans and begins to change their tune with regards to selling Ko-Nim off. UTS responds in a violent manner and the show picks up speed with chasers in space and ruthless Predator-looking soldiers that follow Sullivan’s every command ala Star Wars’ stormtroopers to the Empire.
With each member serving a role in running the spaceship, Space Sweepers is reminiscent of Star Trek, though one wouldn’t dare to compare the two directly. Action scenes in space are almost an imitation of Spider-Man with the characters swinging about. It’s a similarity that’s hard not to make especially when the action scenes are accompanied with Avengers-like music. Of course, the whole tale of humans destroying Earth and making an eden on another planet is very Wall-E too.
With all these elements brought over from popular sci-fi franchises, Space Sweepers must be a geek’s dream, right? Not exactly.
Whilst it’s a fun game to spot similarities between fan-favourite franchises, Space Sweepers fails to find its own footing and it’s unique selling point. It’s a melting pot of everything and still ends up being about nothing. It struggles to keep viewers engaged with its little to no attempt in building its characters, and it doesn’t allow viewers to spend time and really get to know the characters on screen. When something devastating happens, Space Sweepers is quick to sweep (heh) it under the rug to allow for something new to crop up in its place. This mix bag introduces something new at every corner – like a sudden never before seen villain in the last 30 minutes of the show – instead of addressing the issues that were brought up prior. Even the villain’s motivation wasn’t explored, making the entire plot feel empty and pointless.
Following the success of Bong Joon-Ho’s Academy, Oscar and Golden Globe award-winning Parasite, movie-goers with impressions that the K-genre tend to be full of cheesy romance and pretty boys have broadened their perspective. Netflix has taken advantage of this by introducing horror K-films like #Alive and The Call. Space Sweepers is changing things up.
Like a number of other popular Korean films – again, think Parasite – Space Sweepers attempts to provide some social commentary and lessons for its viewers to take home. Cherish family, take care of Mother Earth and don’t be a greedy little prick are the film’s main lessons, but the show is unable to drive these lessons home because it tries to teach everything too quickly and all at once. By the end of the two hours, the messaging is left muddy and unclear. Space Sweepers is definitely one of those films that compresses too much into one when it could be a much stronger piece of entertainment with a series instead.
Plot twists in the film didn’t make any sense either. There weren’t any clues or foreshadowing to allude or back up the validity of the twists and turns. Again, Space Sweepers chooses to tell its viewers of what’s happening instead of showing them how and why these things are happening. For fans who love watching big space actions mainly for the exciting bits, Space Sweepers may be a worthwhile watch. There aren’t many space-based action films other than Star Wars and Star Trek so Space Sweepers is a film that can be added to elongate the list. However, if storyline and world building is what is needed to keep you invested, the chances of you even crossing over to the second hour of Space Sweepers are slim.
With all that said, Space Sweepers had so much potential to be better, especially with the tongue-in-cheek humour, talented cast and beautiful space-action visuals that make the film an enjoyable watch for a space-nerd. It’s a shame that the film couldn’t find its own footing despite having multiple opportunities in its 2-hours long duration. If Space Sweepers were to be made into a series, we wouldn’t oppose, but as a film on its own, it’s not something one should keep on their top-three list, not even close.
GEEK SUMMARY SCORE
Space Sweepers tries to do it all, and achieves nothing at all. It’s a film deprived space-action fans can enjoy, but it had so much potential to be even more.
Story - 6/10
Direction - 7/10
Characterisation - 5/10
Geek Satisfaction - 6/10