A movie like Space Sweepers would probably have been promptly ignored by western audiences of the past, brushed aside as a frivolous foreign film of no cultural consequence to viewers hailing from Western Europe or North America. We are living in a new era, however, an era in which a South Korean movie made by South Korean filmmakers and starring South Korean actors was awarded Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Some, myself included, consider this change to be a positive one for the film industry. It’s a wonderful thing to be exposed to artists’ voices that you may never come into contact with normally. There are plenty of fresh and exciting stories out there just waiting to be told, stories that do not align with the conventional Hollywood zeitgeist.
Enter Space Sweepers, a rollicking sci-fi space adventure from South Korean director Jo Sung-hee. The film takes place in the year 2092. Its futuristic setting is populated with well-worn science fiction imagery and familiar tropes of the genre.
The plot doesn’t exactly reinvent the sci-fi wheel, either. Earth has essentially become an uninhabitable wasteland, and a select few of humanity have been chosen by the duplicitous mega-corporation UTS to populate a new home for the human race on Mars. UTS is headed by the mysterious James Sullivan (Richard Armitage), whose intentions for the Mars colony are (quite obviously) not as altruistic as he would have the desperate swaths of people left on Earth believe.
Our central characters come in the form of the misfit crew of the Victory, a spaceship dedicated to the titular practice of space sweeping. Sweeping entails scouring the outer reaches of space in search of harmful chunks of debris that, when collected and cleansed from the atmosphere, can subsequently be parlayed into a payday for our sweeper protagonists. The Victory is manned by Tae-ho, a former UTS law enforcement officer whose hunt for his missing daughter provides a significant portion of the film’s emotional heft, Captain Jang, the ruthless and cunning leader of the Victory’s ragtag bunch, Tiger Park, a brooding strongman whose hardened exterior veils a tender and compassionate soul, and Bubs, a robot with an unruly and sassy disposition.
If you feel like you’ve seen those character archetypes blended together before, you’re not crazy. Space Sweepers takes obvious inspiration from popular space operas of yesteryear. Films like Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy tread the same narrative waters that Jo Sung-hee’s movie explores. But that doesn’t necessarily make this particular film, which is being lauded as the very first South Korean blockbuster set in space, a failure in its own right.
Though eminently familiar in a lot of ways, Space Sweepers is able to generate enough of a distinctive personality to offset its liberal use of genre clichés. And considering the movie’s modest budget and the relative dearth of similar space-oriented films within the context of South Korean cinema, it’s hard not to admire and applaud Space Sweepers‘ visual prowess. There are moments when the filmmakers’ limited resources become apparent, as is true for any mid-budget picture. However, these moments are few and far between, and the film maintains an impressive level of visual panache for much of its run time.
There’s nothing particularly ground-breaking being done from a filmmaking or storytelling perspective, but I nevertheless found myself reasonably charmed by Space Sweepers‘ enjoyable science fiction sensibilities. If you consider yourself a sci-fi junkie or are just curious about what a South Korean space adventure would look like, you could do far worse than Space Sweepers. It’s not going to have the meteoric cultural impact of a movie like Parasite, but I’d venture to say it’s worth your time, even if it does run about 20 minutes too long.
Also, just a PSA, make sure to switch off the the distracting English-dubbed version of the film if you’re planning on watching it. This is the default setting on Netflix, and it’s how I watched the first half of the movie. After coming to my senses and switching to the original Korean version with English subtitles, my viewing experience noticeably improved.
sci-fi, Adventure | South Korea, 2020 | NC-15 | 5th February 2021 | Netflix Originals | Dir.Sung-hee Jo | Song Joong-Ki, Kim Tae-ri, Seon-kyu Jin