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Let yourself be swept away by ‘Space Sweepers’

With current anxieties about climate change, one would think that a science fiction movie about people struggling to survive on a ravaged Earth is the last thing people would want to watch these days. However, for all of this reviewer’s particular anxieties about the future of the world, “Space Sweepers” proved to be an absolute delight. 

Original, action-packed and yet also heartfelt, the Netflix film “Space Sweepers” (dir. Jo Sung-hee) follows a ragtag crew of space sweepers: people who clean up the debris still floating in Earth’s orbit. This job is a dangerous one, but, as non-citizens, this is the only way they can survive. As a result, our protagonists, Kim Tae-ho (Song Joong-ki), Captain Jang (Kim Tae-ri), Tiger Park (Jin Seong-kyu) and the robot Bubs (Yoo Hae-jin) are a gritty bunch. By contrast, the actual citizens are those the UTS Corporation—headed by James Sullivan (Richard Armitage)—deemed worthy enough to find a home on Mars, which has essentially turned into a paradise. 

The lives of our protagonists become a little more complicated when they stumble upon the girl Kot-nim (Park Ye-rin), who, according to the news, is a robot carrying a hydrogen bomb. The crew’s first instinct is to bring in this child in exchange for money, but as the movie progresses, the crew realizes that the child is not only an actual human but also that she might have the potential to bring life back to Earth. Most importantly, the crew realizes that they might actually have grown fond of this little girl. 

Therein lies the greatest strength of this movie: the found family dynamics will melt the hearts of the viewers as easily as Kot-nim melted the hearts of the hardened crew. In both subtle and unsubtle ways, the crew all find ways to show affection for their new addition. All of the crew’s interactions are especially touching once the audience learns of each of the crew members’ dark pasts—like how Tiger Park was actually a former drug lord, how Captain Jang was actually the closest person to ever murdering the corrupt James Sullivan and how the main protagonist Kim Tae-ho, the slowest to warm up to Kot-nim, lost his adopted daughter to a space accident. 

In the midst of these found family dynamics, the movie essentially starts to ask questions about what it means to be a good person—what it means to have some heart and sense of right and wrong even in the midst of a dog-eat-dog world. 

Speaking of, “Space Sweepers” does a wonderful job conveying chillingly familiar themes of what a highly competitive and, more specifically, highly capitalistic world looks like. While Earth is practically uninhabitable, a literal corporation allows certain people to live in a paradise and determines others to be too much of a “genetic defect” to be allowed in. The message is hardly subtle in this movie: the wealthy and the powerful have a chance at going to this new Mars-Eden, while the rest—deemed “non-citizens” according to UTS—are doomed. 

Using these elements, this film demonstrates how, at the end of the day, the main conflict boils down to the wealthy and powerful versus the everyman, the lower rungs of society. Although this film follows Korean characters, it also features characters from many various countries, like France, Germany, Nigeria and China. Like the main crew, they’re space sweepers too. The concept of unity among people from all around the world against a common foe––the manipulative corporation––is an incredibly powerful one, which only becomes more intense when considering that “Space Sweepers” actually might be one of the few science fiction films that allows each of these characters to speak casually in their mother tongue. This allowance of characters to freely speak their own languages while also being able to come together against the institution speaks to how, even in unity, there is beauty in different voices—all kinds of voices. This movie, as a result, sends out the message that unity does not mean sameness; a team requires people of all different backgrounds and experiences in order to work. 

However, there are some flaws in this movie. For one, Tiger Park, the non-Black Korean former drug lord, wears dreadlocks throughout the movie, which certainly earns the movie some side-eyes. Granted, South Korea might not have been having the same anti-Blackness conversations that America was having in the past, but given the whole emphasis on international strength in this movie, one would think that someone would have done a little more research on the implications of a Korean man wearing dreadlocks. Cultural appropriation still isn’t OK, even if this movie takes place 80 years in the future. Cultural appropriation isn’t OK, full stop.

As for another strange flaw in this movie, there’s something vaguely and unsettlingly ambiguous about antagonist James Sullivans’ origins. He’s noted to be over 150 years old, and, if one does the math, that would put him right in the World War II era. At some point in the movie, Sullivan mentions that his father fought in a war, and he goes on to explain how he witnessed an entire genocide as well as how he watched his mother die in flames—which makes for an unsettling picture of Sullivan’s exact origins. The notion of having a character who could have been a target of genocidal practices and then later going on to repeat genocidal practices is unsettling, to say the least, and something that this reviewer wishes could have presented with a little more nuance in this film—or, at least, could have been further clarified. 

For all its flaws, however, “Space Sweepers” was still mostly enjoyable to watch. The emphasis on what it means to be a good person and what it means to rebel against the powerful corporation will remind audiences of what solid science fiction is—not explosions and epic spaceship chase scenes, but what it means to ultimately be human in an increasingly cold, inhumane world.

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