Space Sweepers (2021, Jo Sung-hee)

Space Sweepers is a special effects spectacular. Director Jo keeps up the pace during the CGI space battles, but always takes the time to be excited at how the scene plays. The film’s set in a post-climate change future where all the rich people live on a giant satellite (with Richard Armitage as the “casting we could afford” evil CEO with multiple evil secrets and a very bad James Earl Jones voice impression at one point) and all the poor people live on a rotting Earth while working for the rich people somehow.

The heroes of the film are a group of… you guessed it… Space Sweepers. Interplanetary contract garbage services. All the satellites and space docks and assorted garbage the human race pollutes space with, these scrappy independents clean it all up and get paid barely enough to eat on. Sweepers is very matter-of-fact with its class politics; never cynical (heck, they think it’ll be 2092 before climate change calamities hit, which means South Koreans lie to themselves about climate change too).

The protagonist is Song Joong-ki, a former child soldier (for Armitage’s company), who gets a heart when he discovers humans are little and cute at some point and adopts a baby he’s just orphaned. Tragedy strikes—it takes a while to find out the specifics because Jo’s script loves only somewhat effective expository flashbacks—and he’s trying to earn enough money to find her little dead body in orbit before she crashes into Earth’s upper atmosphere. The technology exists to do it immediately but only if you’re rich.

It’s a weird character motivation subplot and mostly just serves as an excuse for Song to do churlish, inhumane plot stimulators throughout the film. It’s kind of amazing how likable Song’s able to remain.

Especially since the other members of his crew are completely likable without obsession, pointless subplots.

The captain is Kim Tae-ri. It’s unclear why she’s the captain as she doesn’t pilot the ship or handle the money. It’s possible she arranges the jobs, but the work is just grabbing space debris before other junk collectors can find it. She also doesn’t do much leading. Regardless, Kim’s very sturdy and when she finally gets to kick ass—she too was a soldier for Armitage, though not a child one—it’s a great effects sequence.

The most fun crew member is either Jin Seon-kyu as the crime lord turned junker or Joo Hae-jin as a robot. It’s a motion capture and voice performance from Joo and while the voice acting is good, the special effects are what make the robot so impressive. Space Sweepers has outstanding special effects, both macro and micro, out in space with Jo’s homage to Star Wars space dogfights—but without lasers, since they’re grabbing space garbage—and inside with character moments for Joo. Actually, besides Song, Joo's got the biggest character arc.

But Jin, the former crime boss who turns out to be a big teddy bear when the crew happens upon renegade child android Park Ye-rin? Absolutely adorable.

The story has the crew having to protect Park from Armitage’s malicious plans, which will take them through various well-executed CGI set pieces as the dangers increase from all directions. Including Jong’s single-mindedness.

The cast’s incredibly appealing, with Jo getting excellent moments between each of them and Park, so it’s a breezy two hours and fifteen minutes. The English language (white people) cast, including Armitage, is fairly bad. The multi-ethnic future makes perfect sense and looks great, just Jo doesn’t know how to direct them. Or they don’t know how to act. The last hurdle to South Korean cinema—though, I don’t think any of Asian cinema’s ever really done it—is getting a decent performance from a white actor.

Armitage manages never to be campy enough to be amusing or good enough to be… good, which is a bummer and hurts the third act. But a lot hurts the third act and the epilogue is too short given the enthusiasm the film’s ginned up in the characters.

Hopefully they’ll do a sequel.

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