Look, 2020 was a challenging year. In a world that feels incredibly bleak, sometimes you want something bright and colourful and maybe a little naive to get you through the day. Space Sweepers is entirely this: a Korean blockbuster about a group of rag-tag misfits who salvage space junk for a living, get caught up in a massive conspiracy, adopt a child, and fight back against a ruthless and oppressive corporate overlord.
It’s a ton of fun.
Our four heroes, the titular sweepers, are a salvage crew. They sweep the space around the earth for floating junk which they trade in for cash. Each time they do, they end up in more debt than they started with because this future is entirely privatized and capitalistic. Fees and fines far exceed the value of the materials they can salvage.
Each of the four has a back story: the pilot Tae-Ho (Song Joong-ki) is a former soldier, the captain Jang (Kim Tae-ri) is a former renegade, the engineer Tiger Park (Jin Seon-kyu) is a former gangster, and the robot Bubs (Yoo Hae-jin) is your new favourite robot. In the course o salvaging a ship, they run across Kot-nim (Park Ye-rin), a young child who is apparently an android with a weapon of mass destruction embedded inside her.
The adventure that follows sees the sweepers at first trying to make money off their situation, then effectively adopting Kot-nim, and then fighting back against James Sullivan, the CEO in charge of this future. Sullivan is trying to relocate humanity to Mars –but of course with a secret agenda to “improve” people.
The politics of the movie are not subtle. The poor are at the bottom of the ladder, barely making a living. The people being selected for relocation to the paradises orbiting the nearly ruined earth are all “the best of humanity”, Of course, the fact that they are all wealth is simply a coincidence. If you are starting to think that you have seen this movie before, on the one hand, you definitely have, but on the other hand, you definitely haven’t. The story is so bright and bursting with colour and imagination that every frame feels authentic and original even if they are each made up of the DNA of your favourite movie and video game franchises.
There’s also a nice bit of trans representation here as well: Bubs the robot is coded male in every way, but they want a “skin graft” to make him appear more human, and all the looks they want are explicitly female. This is never commented on, it just is, which is refreshing.
Lastly, the future is presented in one more stark contrast: the haves are almost entirely white, while the have-nots are represented by almost every nation on the planet (and everyone has a universal translator, so everyone just speaks the language they know and everyone else can understand them, a touch I love).
The production design is on point as well, with ships that twist and turn their way through space while also changing their physical configuration, but that also have engine rooms reminiscent of ocean liner boiler rooms. One refreshing choice, the villain’s ships, is the slick ones that look like they evolved out of an Apple store, where the heroes ships are all bright and colourful and dirty as hell.
Each of the actors involved is doing good work here, but the film doesn’t ask them for much. Song Joong-ki gets most of the heavy lifting with his characters tragic past, and Kim Tae-ri is just effortlessly cool as the captain. Jin Seon-kyu turns from gangster to teddy bear as soon as Kot-nim shows up, and is delightful for the rest of the movie. Richard Armitage probably has the least to do, he just needs to look arch whenever he gets to monologuing, and he’s good at it.
Is Space Sweepers going to change the world? Maybe not, but maybe it will. This kind of big, imaginative Science Fiction is exactly the kind that young minds might latch onto like Star Trek or Star Wars did in my youth. Either way, if this is Korea’s first space blockbuster, I cannot wait to see more.
Space Sweepers is streaming on Netflix now.