Film Review: ‘Space Sweepers’ Is a Thrilling Yet Rough-Around-the-Edges Joyride5 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
Set in the year 2092 and follows the crew of a space junk collector ship called The Victory. When they discover a humanoid robot named Dorothy that’s known to be a weapon of mass destruction, they get involved in a risky business deal.
Director: Jo Sung-Hee
Cast: Song Joong-Ki, Kim Tae-Ri, Jin Seon-Kyu, Yoo Hae-Jin, Richard Armitage
Language: Korean, English, French, Russian, Mandarin
Runtime: 136 minutes
Packed with exceptional set designs and a charismatic crew, Korean sci-fi epic Space Sweepers zips around like a thrilling joyride through the cosmos. However, the rollercoaster isn’t without its speed bumps. While Space Sweepers presents a gritty vision of the future, how it reveals its plot hardly matches this tone with a sore lack of danger and grey. It’s a marvellous looking rollercoaster ride where the safety belts feel too tightly strapped.
The year is 2092 and we finally managed to make our planet an environmental hellscape. The rich have fled to the atmosphere, leaving everyone else to etch a living on the barely-liveable planet. To make ends meet, the crew of spaceship Victory collects space junk — a dangerous yet low-paying and essential job to prevent space debris from crashing onto Earth. The crew’s ever-precarious yet uncomplicated lives are turned upside down when they happen upon Dorothy (Park Ye-Rin), a child android disguised as a destructive weapon they hope to ransom off to terrorists.
Space Sweepers borrows from an eclectic mix of genre favourites. Their dusty, camel-coloured vision of Earth is reminiscent of Blade Runner 2049, while the film’s clanky spaceships call back to Ridley Scott’s Alien and anime series Cowboy Bebop. The film’s plot isn’t all too unfamiliar either, with a similar concept previously explored in Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium.
All these, however, do not discount how well Space Sweepers visually channels its influences. Despite a budget almost a tenth of usual Hollywood sci-fi fares, the Korean film looks exceptional. Space ships and locales bristle with life and personality thanks to its mix of high-grade special effects and intricately crafted physical props. High-speed chases and dogfights dazzle with their detail and texture.
Spaceship Victory is home to a motley crew of societal rejects audiences have come to expect from similar films. Piloting the spaceship is Tae-ho (Song Joong-Ki) who looks to fund a search for his adopted daughter. At the helm is the feisty Captain Jang (Kim Tae-ri), with ex-criminal Tiger Park (Jin Seon-kyu) and re-programmed military robot Bubs (Yoo Hai-jin) completing the crew. Their backstories and motivations, slowly unveiled throughout Space Sweepers, may be formulaic but the chummy chemistry shared between the crew is the film’s high point.
To be fair, Space Sweepers, despite its thinly-veiled critiques on class, makes clear its intention to be a lighthearted adventure. Yet the film is still not spared from a clash of tones, stemming from how its core conflict is handled. It all feels lazy. The crew is pitted against a generic villain, the egotistical inventor and master of the space colonies James Sullivan (Richard Armitage) who looks to blow up Earth (no, really). It’s up to the blue-collar heroes to save the world from the evil capitalists.
The world’s grit and grease feel like wallpaper with stakes feeling far less muted than they should. The jarring tone further frustrates with several convenient Deus ex Machina moments, leaving a muddy-paced film to ultimately feel inconsequential. It’s just not something you would expect from a film with a healthy dose of swearing and deaths, leaving its main characters to feel like cosplay rather than the grounded portrayals Space Sweepers strives to parallel.
The film’s massive scale leaves much to be desired with how it falters in worldbuilding. Space Sweepers features phenomenal special effects but it can be difficult to make sense of what is going on. Characters punch buttons and push levers to suggest a struggle, but a deluge of technobabble drowns audiences in confusion with large-lettered screens doing their best to explain the explosions and spectacle.
While there are no extraterrestrials in Space Sweepers, what might feel alien is how characters are able to converse in their own native language thanks to in-ear translators. It’s a welcome decision that emphasises diversity in a way that is hardly seen in Hollywood. However, the dialogue, carried by the performance of the film’s side characters, is unfortunately delivered in awkward fashions that feel disconcerting instead of harmonious. Conversely, Space Sweepers also packs a subplot regarding transgender issues that is maturely handled and commendable.
All that being said, Space Sweepers does feature wonderful performances from its main cast. The aforementioned chemistry shared between the crew is the film’s strongest point, with Ye-Rin, portraying the child weapon of mass destruction Dorothy, effortlessly stealing the hearts of both the crew and the audience. Despite being saddled with generic motivations, Armitage is delightfully sinister as the picture’s villain, bouncing between a benevolent savour of mankind and a terrifying megalomaniac lacing every threat with a venomous dose of menace.
Perhaps with the responsibility of being South Korea’s first big-budget sci-fi adventure, Space Sweepers, unfortunately, feels like an exercise of necessity where its plot is secondary to the razzle-dazzle, coupled with formulaic story beats and star power to almost guarantee wide-appeal and success.
Yet it is hard to deny the film as solid entertainment with its winning cast of characters and gorgeous sets. It feels equally certain that a deeper, more fleshed out sci-fi epic is in sight from South Korea. Space Sweepers is a deafening proof of concept that the country is more than capable to hang with Hollywood in the special-effects department.
Space Sweepers is now streaming on Netflix: