I caught Space Sweepers at the end of February, a fun little Netflix movie perfect for fans of action-packed science fiction. This story reminded me a great deal of Outlaw Star and Cowboy Bebop, but with really excellent choices with regards to diversity (the universal translator that allowed everyone to just speak their own language was an especially nice touch). And the special effects were really good — one of the best things about the movie.
All that said, I want to do a deeper critique of this film, so if you haven’t seen it stop here. Come back when you have.
I watched this film with the S.O., and while I found it light-hearted and enjoyable, he hated it. One of the biggest critiques that the S.O. had with this movie was internal inconsistency. I personally think this was a product of two big issues. One was that there was just a lot of worldbuilding this movie was trying to do within the bounds of the plot, and not all of that worldbuilding was super successful. There were several times when the way scenes were cut was choppy and too fast for the average viewer (and it should be noted that the S.O. is not the most savvy sci-fi viewer but he has seen the classics). Even I had to go back and figure out what had just happened a few times. That said, I think the biggest issue that people who don’t like this film have is with the ending.
Space Sweepers makes the very intentional decision not to kill off the crew at the end of the film. This is despite a very satisfying twist that guarantees they will die, a sleight of hand by the crew of the Victory that brings all of their lives to a satisfying conclusion. They make a choice to sacrifice themselves in order to save Kot-nim, the child they have found who could be the key to the Earth’s survival. They choose to take the nuclear fusion bomb with them on their ship in order to spare her and the planet. Yet at the final instant, Kot-nim, impossibly, saves them. And I say impossibly because we have been informed canonically that this explosion will kill Kot-nim by destroying the nanobots that keep her alive. Yet she saves them via use of nanobots.
These nanobots, it should be pointed out, are not the nanobots that are native to Kot-nim. They are part of a hazardous waste dump site — and I think there’s potential that this could have all been internally consistent with a bit more explanation earlier in the film as to why the nanobots at that site are so terrifying and important. Kot-nim takes control of those nanobots early on in the film, but they aren’t used again at any point until the finale. And even if you are on board with Kot-nim controlling those nanobots from so far away and them being able to survive a direct nuclear explosion, the ending still feels forced.
I’d argue this is a Stranger than Fiction phenomenon — and yes, I’m talking about the Will Ferrell movie. For those unfamiliar, Stranger than Fiction is about a writer who starts hearing a voice narrating his life. That voice turns out to be that of an author famous for her tragic stories. The author intends to kill him at the end of her book, but he is able to find her and beg for his life. She ultimately spares him but her book, eventually published, is lampooned by critics for being too soft and unbelievable. In other words, the improbable survival of the crew in Space Sweepers is an intentional choice by the writer to make what some will consider less good art purely for the joy of keeping the characters alive. It’s a choice I enjoyed, even if I agree that it’s not very good writing.
How would I have revised Space Sweepers? I know no one is asking, but I did chew through how the writer could have kept the sacrifice and still allowed Kot-nim her new-found family, and I think I have an answer.
First, I would have built up the relationship between the crew members a bit more, so that as the movie went on they came to feel like more of a family. They had a lot in common, and at the beginning of the film I felt like they all kind of hated one another. I’d have liked to see that change more significantly. Second, I would have had Tae-ho be the fighter and Captain Jang be the pilot. There’s a strategic reason for this. At the end of the film, when the bomb goes off, Captain Jang and Bubs are outside of the spaceship which provides shelter from the fusion bomb. There is no possible way they could survive unless the nanobots actively pulled them into the inside of the ship which would be physically improbable when dealing with vacuum. But if Tae-ho was the hand-to-hand and munitions expert — a rational decision since he was essentially a member of the space police force — he would have been outside. Bubs could possibly be rebuilt even if the EMP from the fusion bomb turned her off or damaged part of her carapace. But Tae-ho would have died.
Why is this important? Tae-ho has given up his chance to find his daughter. He also makes the tactical decision to give up his life, along with the rest of the crew — but it’s heavily inferred that the idea comes from him. His moral arc as a character is actually more interesting if he dies, because it is so tragic — he will never know if his daughter is recovered, if she is saved. He will never be able to make any peace with her, beyond being the hero she always knew him to be. But his friends — Captain Jang and Tiger Park and Bubs — they will survive. And with Kot-nim’s help, they will still be alive. If they were to find his daughter at the end, and bring her home? That would be an absolutely uplifting ending to the story. This thing that Tae-ho has been trying to accomplish alone is impossible, but with the help of his team, in honor of his sacrifice, his goals are realized.
Overall I really enjoyed this movie, and I think it works without this alternate ending if what you’re looking for is a good space romp with a lot of special effects and strong anti-corporate themes. I’m excited to see more Korean films in the future, as I feel like the film scene is really expanding there.
Until the next time I watch a new movie!