“Do you think poverty makes us bad, or that we’re bad because we’re poor?” So muses one of Space Sweepers‘ interplanetary space-junk wranglers. It’s something of a startling question, when you think about it, so backwards in its absoluteness and sad in its implication. The world of Space Sweepers--no, the galaxy of Space Sweepers— is one where the working class is driven to scrounge and shed morals and blood to survive, while megalomaniacal trillionaires (or something like that, who can keep count?) ascend to levels of faux-godhood.
Yes siree, Space Sweepers isn’t playing around with its social commentary, though why should it? We need more films that call for change. We also need more films about gambling androids and take-no-gruff lady space pirates. Yeah, we needed Space Sweepers.
Director: Jo Sung-hee
Release Date: February 5, 2021 (Netflix)
In 2092, the Earth is reaching levels of pollution and inhospitality that cast a Blade Runner 2049 like haze over the megalopolises of the world, workers trudging to the stratospheric elevators garbed in gasmasks, many saddling up in their ships for “space sweeping,” the errant collection of stray satellites, debris, weapons… Space junk, its mess and squalor, coveted by the crew of the Victory. Tae-ho (Song Joong-ki), Captain Jang (Kim Tae-ri), Tiger Park (Jin Seon-kyu), and Bubs (Yoo Hae-jin), the aforementioned android with a penchant for great shirts and gambling for cash.
Four sweepers from walks of life dramatically different, yet all somehow quite the same, scraping by from job to job. The interplanetary news message board blares with the kidnapping of Dorthy (Park Ye-rin), a childlike android that harbors a bomb of catastrophic potential, and when the Victory crew stumble upon the little girl on everyone’s most-wanted list, a lucrative prospect presents itself. Provided they can outmaneuver UTS Corporation and its CEO, James Sullivan (Richard Armitage), the conniving and self-righteous baron of extraterrestrial human relocation. The game is afoot.Space Sweepers may sound like a bit of the old familiar underdog story, and you’d be right in many regards. The Victory crew and their scrappy gusto going up against UTS and their corporate goons is the sort of thing we often get to see on the big screen when it comes to the world of big, effects-driven blockbusters Space Sweepers belongs to. Sullivan is an increasingly-evil, almost cartoonish Elon Musk-Jeff Bezos hybrid, whose ambitions for relocating humanity cast aside more than 90% of the world’s population. But genre is something we return to for its simple pleasures and newfound spins, and director Jo Sung-hee has found a whole lot of pleasures with Space Sweepers.
First and foremost, here is a film with heart. Each of our main characters is almost instantly likable, be it Jang’s confident toughness or Park’s wild streak, his gangland past evident in his trusty hatchet and prominent tattoos. Bubs, eyes aglow and mouthing off, is instantly one of the best ‘bots to hit the screen in years. Space Sweepers, on a basic level, enamors us to its ragtag band of space pirates the way Disney and Marvel wooed millions with the Guardians of the Galaxy. Except, Sweepers didn’t need hundreds of millions to make it happen.
There’s no inherent points for making a movie with less money than another; investment aside, it’s the final product, the lasting impact that matters. And yet, it’s impossible to acknowledge Space Sweepers in any way, shape, or form without talking about what a massive blast of visual spectacle and rollicking fun this film is--comparable to the Marvels and Star Wars movies Hollywood churns out--with the absolutely fractional budget (approximately $21 billion) of those nine-digit tentpoles. The answer? Smart filmmaking. Who’da thought!
The dense, messy dashboards of the Victory or the lush overload of a space-bound club. It’s all just good design first, the effects built upon that. Space Sweepers works with what it’s got and it works it good, giving in to the huge spectacle of action and sci-fi studio epics while reeling things in when it can covertly cut production corners. And it understands that, visually, you can pack a wallop with the way characters dress and the tools they carry, with the entire crew rocking threads that exude personality. Here’s a good-looking cast. And sure, maybe some of Space Sweeper‘s big CG effects make you say “Hm, that doesn’t look real!” But you already knew that--it’s a movie! But rather than distract you with photorealism, any bits that might be considered weak by an audience whose special effect standards are solely “the best” work to highlight what the film does so well: It makes you care.
Space Sweepers is fiction, of course. It’s genre fiction, with familiar beats and archetypes. And yet, returning to our scrappy crew, it positively endears us to the fighting, yelling, punching, crying, farting (!), and drinking of our characters, all of whom bear some deep scars and pain. But it’s the perseverance and spunk of the Victory‘s crew that keep them going, and that’s more than enough for me to keep going, too.
Humanity, turns out, isn’t something to be cast aside the way Space Sweeper‘s evil CEO would have you believe. Even in its least-human! Bubs the robot, sentient and collecting scrap after “life” as a machine of murder and war, was created with a man’s voice, yet she works tirelessly, hoarding money, to resleeve in a humanlike skin of a woman. It only makes sense that a sentient AI could choose its gender as a human would. Tae-ho, similarly hustling for a buck, does so out of a truly tragic past as a child soldier, the mark of war and violence bearing its cost on everyone it touches. Space Sweepers isn’t a short film at 136 minutes, and it may have lulls. But Jo’s film takes its run to be about character, the sometimes-familiar epic space opera a means of giving our crew time live and be human. It’s also a great excuse to give an android a harpoon and take down some space fighters, but that other thing is important too.
At any given moment there are hundreds of new series of movies cropping up on streaming services, all vying for your attention and many made by passionate, talented individuals. In a time where going to the movies for a bucket of popcorn and an eyeful of laser guns going off is impossible, Space Sweepers being put out by Netflix is a couchbound triumph. It’s actually a bit sad to think I’ll probably never get to see this on a big screen with a packed house, but also heartening to know that being beamed into the homes of millions of streaming subscribers means an audience wider than it likely ever would have had, theatrically. So do yourself a favor: Gas up the ‘ol spacefarer and settle in on the couch. Space Sweepers is a blockbuster spectacle done by Koreans with charisma, and it’s done right.