Down on their luck and drowning in debt, the crew of the spaceship Victory — Captain Jang (Kim Tae-ri), Tae-ho (Song Joong-Ki), Tiger Park (Jin Seon-kyu), and a robot, Bubs (Yoo Hae-Jin / Kim Hyang-gi) — work as “space sweepers,” salvaging broken satellites and other orbital garbage. Society has stratified so much that the poor live on a near-uninhabitable Earth while the rich live in luxurious orbital habitats. The richest man in existence, Sullivan (Richard Armitage), plans to turn Mars into a new paradise using nanotechnology — but only for those who can afford it.
The Victory‘s crew dodges police, other salvager crews, repo men, and terrorists, but when they find a girl named Dorothy (Park Ye-Rin) in a derelict ship, it sets off a chain of events that could end with the destruction of the entire Earth.
Josh: Fun movie! I’ve already recommended it to 15 people. Horribly misleading title, though. It sounded almost like a comedy thing like the Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse series, or Space Janitors. From the title, I was expecting it to be more tongue-in-cheek.
Arley: The title sounds super pulpy. My initial reaction to watching it was, I really enjoyed it. I thought it was a lot of fun! There were a lot of cool elements that are enjoyment triggers. For example, one of the things this movie seems to do is it smashes the idea of the future as being a monolithic culture, which is the opposite of pretty much every American movie.
The movie includes a ton of great small worldbuilding details. This is a Korean film, and the five heroes speak Korean, but most characters wear translator earpieces to deal with a wide array of languages. Bubs’s faceplate projects emotions like EVE from WALL-E or Rorschach’s mask from Watchmen. The spaceship crew with questionable pasts bending the law to make a big score mashes together Cowboy Bebop and Firefly. It’s not quite hard SF — there’s artificial gravity — but the ships look sufficiently patched together and lived in that you can believe this is a real universe populated by real people.
Josh: The space guard soldiers looked badass. One of them was number 47, and I wonder if that was done on purpose as a Star Trek reference.
Arley: Space Sweepers takes a bunch of science fiction tropes and jams them all together. A lot of times that would be a hot mess, but it ends up working nicely in this. It’s also a long movie so they have a lot of room to do that. I liked that the trash management satellite is huge, which kind of speaks to the volume of trash that humans produce and human behavior. It’s like a sly kind of commentary on the way that we treat the environment.
Josh: They were hardly even sweepers or salvagers, only for the first couple minutes of the movie. There’s this proposed technology called a laser broom — because there actually is a bunch of orbital debris in real life — a ground-based laser that would use the pressure of light to slow down space junk enough to deorbit it and burn it up in the atmosphere. So you’d be sweeping the sky, sweeping space, but from Earth. A lot of actual space debris is so tiny you can’t catch it with harpoons or whatever. In the movie, they go out and harpoon giant satellites which, I guess, could pay big money, but doesn’t really do much to clear up the skies for traffic. So at the beginning of the film I thought, oh how improbable, and it is, but as the movie went on, it didn’t really matter — this movie is so much fun.
Rich tech-bro Sullivan uses nanotechnology to create his Martian utopia, but accidentally makes a MacGuffin as well. There’s a lot of class commentary going on: the wealthiest man ever is telegraphed as the villain even before he starts preaching caste systems and genocide. The heroes are class underdogs, and it takes collective effort to bring down the current system.
Faced with yet another failed payout, Tae-ho asks, “Do you think poverty makes us bad, or are we poor because we’re bad?” It’s a good summation of the way that capitalism makes poor people question their worth, a question that they shouldn’t have to ask. It’s unclear if Tae-ho is asking whether they are bad as in morally, or bad as in just incapable of doing their jobs (and therefore making money). It’s a downward spiral, “Debt makes more debt,” as one character says, and in this system they have no worth because they have no money. It’s not obviously apparent at first, in the logic of this movie, that people have intrinsic value.
Josh: I’m totally fine with the insanely rich guy automatically being the villain. That’s how it should be. What I did not find believable, though, is that when they released audio of Sullivan saying, “Who cares if a billion or two people on Earth die?” all the people in the habitats are then so horrified that they presumably renounce their comfortable lives. What they would actually do is say, “Oh no, who’s going to clean up our garbage now? Who’s gonna serve us?” There would be no remorse.
There are also similarities to the Philip K. Dick stories “Imposter” and “Second Variety”. Dorothy is introduced to the audience when a news announcer says, “It may look like an innocent child, but it is actually a weapon of mass destruction.” Her appearance gives the Victory‘s crew an opportunity at not just paying off debt but achieving actual financial security. Dorothy’s cheerful innocence, even as she wields frightening technological powers, again echoes Cowboy Bebop — she is equal parts Ed the hacker and Ein the ship’s mascot.
Arley: The scene where she’s brought on the ship is great humor, even if it borders on over-the-top. But I liked how they used humor to lighten the mood.
Josh: I felt that the nanobots worked, in terms of this story. Sure, at some point I thought, oh no, nanotechnology it’s gonna be magic, but it doesn’t really detract too much from my enjoyment of the movie. Other people may vary. And usually I am, you know, pretty critical of this kind of stuff, but that was a fun science fiction movie, which is something I haven’t seen in a long time.
The relationships that Dorothy forms with Bubs and Tiger Park, and her efforts to win the affections of the more reticent Captain Jang and Tae-ho, provide the central core of the movie’s charm. The misfit crew, on the verge of losing their ship and going their separate ways, find a renewed camaraderie through her catalysis.
It’s a much-needed transformation, since they are all, initially, terrible people. A cartel leader, a mass-murdering child soldier (although, if you’re a child soldier, are you really responsible for such things?), an assassin and pirate, and even the robot was an air-to-air combat model, responsible for many deaths. When we first meet them, they’re actively being dicks, stealing directly from other space sweepers. The idea is similar to Guardians of the Galaxy‘s team-up of ganglords, assassins, and thieves, but here in Space Sweepers the underworld element is more convincing.
Arley: It was an interesting aspect that the robot had a man’s voice, but really self-identified as a woman, and was saving up to choose her own skin. It’s a really interesting subplot. All the characters have really good backstories that came into play later on, and not just backstory for backstory sake.
Josh: There was excellent chemistry on all fronts.
Arley: I had a problem with Tae-ho being the main character, the center of the movie. And he’s a shitty dad. He’s dedicated at first, but once he loses everything he becomes totally neglectful, and through Soon-Yi’s (Oh Ji-Yeol) death becomes the hurt male character that everyone’s supposed to sympathize with, which I recently learned is a common male character trope in Asian cinema. Meanwhile, the actual dad of the other girl, who is a good guy working to save her life, he gets killed and there’s no real remorse or moment of mourning. He’s killed and thrown away, basically, because of Tae-ho, who is the character we end up feeling sympathetic towards. I mean, these things only became problems for me once I sort of peel it back and thought a little more about the movie. He’s ultimately a toxic character.
Josh: Well — I’ll agree with some parts of that, but disagree with others. Would Soon-Yi have been better off if he’d sent her back to Earth, where it’s a wasteland? I don’t know how that society works — is there adoption? Is it more dangerous in space, or on the planet? As for him gambling and pushing her away — they don’t really show a lot of those surrounding circumstances. Are there job opportunities for him that he’s avoiding, or is gambling the only way he can possibly make money? Yeah, he pushes her away like an asshole, but I’ve got two kids, and even in a stable home life or whatever there are times when I’m like, “Please, shut up and go somewhere else.” So, imagining the stress and pressure he’s under, and having a young kid with him, I think that’s an understandably human moment. I didn’t consider that scene to be shitty fatherhood, in and of itself.
Though they’re such terrible people (but are they bad because they’re poor, or poor because they’re bad?), they’re not unsympathetic, because you can understand what they’re going for and can see that what they’re fighting is worse than who they are. They are fighting a supreme evil, portrayed as just a little over the top, but also not too far-fetched. If Elon Musk actually starts Mars colonization, it will pretty much be like this film. “Rich people, come with me. Poor people, you can work for us.”
In the end, the singular villain is defeated and the Earth begins to heal, but the system of oppression is still in place, and, though the crew gets their reward, they go right back to their old ways. So are they good, now that they’re rich, or are they rich because they are good?
Josh: I thought, “Oh that’s a cheap ending.” I wanted them to have died, even though I liked most of them.
Arley: Captain Jang was my favorite. I loved how she always stood up to people. But another problem I had with the movie — they had a lot of moments of fake sacrifice, times when you think they are about to get hurt in the name of the fight, but nah, they are actually fine. If there were real moments of sacrifice, it would have been more powerful.
Josh: I thought they were teasing all those fake sacrifices so that the ending would be they actually died, and it would’ve made up for the fake-outs before. But, nope. I mean, it’s still okay, it’s a feel-good ending.
Arley: I didn’t feel good about the feel-good ending haha!
Space Sweepers moves quickly, and maybe that comes across as too much flash and not enough substance in places. It’s not a philosophical movie like Blade Runner (2049), so it obviously doesn’t dive too deeply into its issues. (You can only fit so much class analysis between that many gunfights, chase scenes, or explosions.)
But the emotional core is strong, and there are a thousand small things that sell their point quickly, and allow them to move on with the action.
Josh: Overall, I recommend it. If I saw this randomly come across my queue on Netflix, with that title, I would’ve outright dismissed it as another cheap scifi movie. But it’s actually a lot of adventurous fun, with great characters, and it looks good!
Arley: Some of the scenes looked a little too videogame —
Josh: Good enough!
Arley: — but overall I agree. I think it’s a surprisingly good movie, given the title and the poster image. It’s a lot more interesting and fun, not to mention better plotted and better told, than so many other SF movies we’ve covered. Right from the opening I thought, damn, this thing looks cool. It’s certainly better than a ton of American movies with big name actors and budgets that could, you know, be better spent on education.
Directed by: Jo Sung-hee
Written by: Yoon Seung-min, Yoo-kang Seo-ae & Jo Sung-hee
Starring: Song Joong-Ki, Kim Tae-ri, Jin Seon-kyu, Yoo Hae-Jin, Richard Armitage, Park Ye-Rin, Kim Mu-Yeol, Oh Ji-Yeol, Kim Hyang-gi, Nas Brown, Kevin Dockry, Daniel Joey Albright & Carla Fernanda Avilla Escobedo
JOSH PEARCE, Associate Editor, started working at Locus in 2016. He studied creative writing at SFSU and has sold short stories and poems to a variety of speculative fiction magazines. Born and raised in the Bay Area, he currently lives in the East Bay with his wife and sons and spends way too much time on Twitter: @fictionaljosh. One time, Ken Jennings signed his chest.
ARLEY SORG, Senior Editor, grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado. He lives in Oakland, CA. A 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, Arley is co-Editor-in-Chief at Fantasy Magazine, Associate Editor and reviewer at Lightspeed & Nightmare magazines, interviewer at Clarkesworld Magazine, and reviewer for Cascadia Subduction Zone Magazine. He can be found at arleysorg.com – where he has started his own “casual interview” series with authors and editors – and on Twitter (@arleysorg).
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