“Who cares if a million lives are lost?”
Oh man, this film is incredible. Where do I even begin? So Space Sweepers is a South Korean space western film. It was released in 2021 and directed by Jo Sung-Hee. Apparently it’s regarded as the first Korean space blockbuster, which is amazing, and it’s available to watch on Netflix if you haven’t seen it. Obviously the next bit of this post is very spoilery (as per usual) so you know… continue at your own peril.
So the premise of the film is that it’s the year 2092 and the earth has become pretty much uninhabitable evidenced by people having to wear breathing apparatus when they’re moving around earth. UTS Corporation, run by their CEO/overlord James Sullivan, has built a new home for humanity which orbits earth and sort of mimics the ecosystem but as with most utopic cities, it is only available to the few elite people allowed to ascend. Meanwhile, the rest of Earth are left to suffocate and struggle. The film follows the shenanigans of a group of society known as Space Sweepers… which are kind of like road sweepers but in space. They’re tasked with collecting the space debris that floats in the earth’s orbit and they can then sell it to the company factory so big items are a big deal. The main characters work on the ship ‘The Victory. There’s Kim Tae-ho, Tiger Park, an android and Captain Jang. The backstories of each of these characters is really rich and very different. Tae-ho was a soldier who finds a baby and adopts it (a girl called Su-ni). He turns his back on being a soldier and then is made a non-citizen leaving him and his daughter homeless. This is so reminiscent of the way that a lot of countries treat their soldiers, that once they become useless to the state, they turn their back on them; so this specific backstory emphasises this reality. Anyway, he becomes neglectful and is therefore not paying attention when Su-ni is caught up in a collision between space debris and their sector. Su-ni is violently ejected into space and the government refuse to help find her body because he is considered a non-citizen. Tiger Park used to be a drug baron but has a heart of gold. Bubs was once a soldier bot. Jang was a child genius, but discovers how UTS works and decides to attempt to assassinate Sullivan, nearly dying in the process.
The crew pick up what they think is normal space debris, only to discover a child inside who the authorities are searching for. It is claimed that she contains a weapon of mass destruction created by the terrorist group Black Fox. They find a phone in her bag which they trace to a person willing to pay them two million dollars in exchange for the child. They arrange to meet the person at a nightclub but in the chaos, they lose the child Dorothy (Korean name Kot-nim) and UTS soldiers swarm the area, massacring people at the club (blaming it on the Black Fox group). It becomes obvious that Kot-nim is not just a normal kid and that she has some sort of power to manipulate nanobots and grow plants. The crew disagree about what to do as they attempt to make another exchange attempt. They are ambushed by masked people who reveal themselves to be fellow Space Sweepers working as part of the collective Black Fox which they explain is an environmental group; not a terrorist group. The group explain that the child was born of a disease and in an attempt to save her life, her father injects her with nanobots which gives her this special ability. It is revealed that UTS have been using this child to terraform Mars. that Sullivan plans to kill Dorothy and that this will be cataclysmic for Earth. They decide to work together to save humanity and reunite Kot-nim with her father and are momentarily successful but are then met with UTS soldiers who murder everyone save for the Victory crew and Kot-nim is kidnapped. Initially Tae-ho takes Sullivan’s finders fee but then realises he’s better than that and decides they must save the girl. The crew get to the bomb that Kot-nim is strapped to and free her but realise it cannot be diffused, that the only way to save her and the planet would be to separate the child from the bomb by 5,000 kilometres. Jang calls on all Space Sweepers to help on the emergency frequency. The Sweepers come to their aid and fight the troops. Sullivan intercepts them but they still manage to get away in time, revealing that they did a switcheroo.. That they gave the child to a friend and that instead they had the bomb. There’s a moment where you hear the inner dialogue of Sullivan as he says “Why? I did everything right” before he is destroyed. Kot-nim manages to protect them in the blast using her super cool powers, and the last scenes are of The Victory in the aftermath, Kot-nim happily living amongst the crew and the crew continuing to chase space debris.
So, there’s a lot going on this film and I really don’t even know what to say about it other than I thought it was just an incredible film.
Okay, I do have a lot to say. I have so many feelings.
I don’t want to be reductive but there is something so reminiscent in this film about Star Wars, specifically the ramshackle crew of Han Solo and co, the adventure of the Millennium Falcon. There’s moments in Star Wars where Han Solo is speaking in English, and Chewy in his language and they just get each other, and they move in and out of these dark corners of the universe with exotic creatures and it’s just incredibly mundane and ordinary seeming to watch it, even though it’s obviously like nothing you have ever seen before. I get that same feel when I watched this film. They’re kind of thrown together and everyone’s very different. At times they speak different languages but the Space Sweepers are just trying to survive. They have those jobs that seem really exciting but in this world, they’re considered the lowest rung of society. There’s this moment at the end of the film where the Victory spaceship whooses off after space debris and it brought me back to the whoosh of the millennium falcon. That same feeling of adventure and excitement that was so special it actually made me cry.
The cast are incredibly diverse. The version I watched was the original South Korean audio, with English subtitles, but throughout the film you hear a variety of different languages and accents. Russian. English. Middle Eastern. Spanish. German. And they all understand each other, which I thought was really cool. And then when you see the Black Fox group, that’s also represented by different skin tones and different accents, sometimes broken English/Korean. It’s not some homogenised version of the future like the colony is promising. It’s diversity and difference, coming together for a common cause, and I find that really quite beautiful.
I enjoyed very much the fact that the peripheral characters are so well fleshed out. I find often with blockbuster films that the main characters and their stories/dialogues will be fleshed out, but then all of the peripheral characters are very two-dimensional. A good example of that is in the Alien Prometheus film, and the end result of that is you don’t care about anyone except the main people… but what this fails to realise is that if you invest in more of your character building, that enriches the whole film. Some people see it as a sunken cost and merely a waste of time… but it creates such a rich film, it makes you get behind the story, it makes you invested in the story.. There are so many cool examples of this. For instance, the leader of the Black Fox group is also an accountant(?) for the UTS Corporation. You start off thinking he is a terrible pencil-pusher but he’s basically been working undercover this whole time. Then there’s the android Bubs, who the child instantly recognises is not a boy bot but a girl, and Bubs blushes and confides in her that she has been saving money from their jobs to upgrade and change her physique to one that represents her femininity. It makes her triumph in getting rich so much more endearing. Like at one point before that backstory was fleshed out, I was like why would an android want to be rich, but then you realise it’s for a very ernest reason which approaches the concept of transness in a way that I think both illustrates the feeling of otherness and also tells a story which endearing, and doesn’t use Bubs as just another joke at trans peoples expense.
All of the main crew also have different motivations for why they agree to sacrifice themselves for the child. Captain Jang wants to thwart the corporation and specifically Sullivan. Bubs has that sweet connection with the child where Kot-nim is probably the first and only person to see her as she truly is. I guess similarly Tiger Park is not seen as an object of fear by Kot-nim, where society does view him that way (which UTS plays off of with the propaganda they share with Earth as they scapegoat The Victory). Lastly Tae-ho sees his own daughter in this child, and decides to ‘step-up-to-the-plate’ in a way that he probably feels he was unable to with his own daughter in her final moments. So yeah, they all have different motivations but they ultimately add up to the same moral alignment. And I find it funny that despite the fact that these characters quarrel and fight amongst themselves and squabble after space trash, they still look out for one another. They sacrifice themselves without thinking, knowing that it is a suicide mission and have this deep integrity whereas society would suggest because of the line of work that they are in and their class status, they have no integrity. That they are simply vagrants and losers. If it wasn’t for the story having been leaked on the emergency frequency, you can guarantee that UTS would have spun that story that the explosion out on the edge of the universe was caused by someone else. Maybe even the Sweepers themselves! And then no one would have known about Sullivan’s evil plans. Which makes me wonder if the collision that killed Su-ni was even caused by space debris in the first place. What if there was some other reason and it was blamed on the Space Sweepers not doing their job correctly?
The one question I don’t think was answered properly, and forgive me if I missed this but what the absolute fuck was going on with Sullivan and the bulging veins?! He gave me vibes of white man saviour, like in the game Bioshock Infinite… you know where the guy becomes a prophet and claims to be the answer to humanity’s problems and builds this ‘utopic’ floating city but it turns out he is an absolute dick… Yeah you know the one..
Anyways, there’s so much in this film. It was really a joy to watch. Overall, this film is so exciting and complicated and heartwarming. On the face of it, if you look no further than the surface, it’s an adventurous romp across the universe, but not that far undearth.. a mere scratch below and it highlights af myriad of the current problems that exist in our society now such as class systems, inequality, how profit is reverred above all else, the fact that we are killing our own planet, our uncertain future, the ways in which we treat our most vulnerable… all in a fun and colourful South Korean package. It made me laugh. It made me cry. I adored watching this film and would absolutely watch it a million times over.