The Wandering Earth II: A happy union between science and film
Published: Mar 09, 2023 02:47 PM
The space elevator in The Wandering Earth II Photo: Courtesy of Maoyan

The space elevator in The Wandering Earth II Photo: Courtesy of Maoyan

In 2023, during the Chinese Lunar New Year, a science fiction film from China called The Wandering Earth II was released globally and received an overwhelming response from audiences. In just the first 3 days, it attracted over 20 million viewers worldwide. The film is set in a future world where the Sun is dying out and Earth is facing an impending apocalypse in just 100 years. Instead of seeking refuge in spacecraft, mankind decides to take the planet with them on a journey out of the Solar System, driven by their longing for their beloved home, Earth.

Back in 2019, the film The Wandering Earth, which was adapted from a short story by author Cixin Liu, became a huge success at the Chinese box office. Four years later, director Frant Gwo and his team created a brand new, cohesive prequel to the original story that showcases the potential of science fiction to be both entertaining and educational. The attention to detail in creating a believable future world is evident in the film's use of cutting-edge technology, as well as its incorporation of scientific concepts such as the construction of the Space Elevator, the development of Digital Life, and the depiction of life at the Moon Base. The film's ability to combine stunning visuals with thought-provoking concepts makes it stand out in the science fiction genre. Also, the focus on the science behind the story not only adds to the realism of the future world but also helps to engage audiences on a deeper level. This combination of entertainment and education is a rare find and shows how science fiction can be used to inspire curiosity and encourage people to think critically about the future.

Glancing at the list of science consultant teams and organizations contributing to the scientific and technical advice for this film, we could find a deep collaboration between film and science that further highlights the director's commitment to creating a believable portrayal of the future. This not only adds to the film's credibility but also demystifies scientific concepts and makes them more accessible to audiences. By including these elements, The Wandering Earth II becomes not only an entertaining science fiction film but also a thought-provoking commentary on the relationship between science, technology, and humanity.

Scientific expertise is incredibly valuable in the creation of believable and visually stunning films. The science consultant team in this film consists of 2 producers and 17 scientists, who are divided into 5 groups based on their disciplines. They were invited to help filmmakers create more scientifically accurate visuals, check facts, provide logical explanations for speculative situations, and offer alternative solutions for implausible plot points (Figure 1). For example, the production team originally designed a method for destroying the moon, but the scientific consultant team provided calculations showing that the energy required to do so was roughly equal to 1029 J and would require a billion times more energy than what was initially proposed. The production team ultimately accepted this advice and modified the original script to include the Lunar Exile Project and Phased Array Nuclear Detonation methods. This change resulted in approximately a third of the script being modified, but it ended up creating a more scientifically balanced and visually appealing third act of the film.

Furthermore, scientists offer a wealth of valuable contributions to the world of the film beyond simply adding authenticity to technical details. Their scientific training equips them with the ability to analyze film scenarios with a holistic perspective and understanding of the interconnectedness within complex systems. This skill is highly valued by screenwriters, producers, and directors who are working to flesh out the structural foundations of their sci-fi world-building. Director Frant Gwo and producer Geer Gong have expressed many times publicly, "The world-building this time is far more difficult than we expected! Without our science consultant team, we definitely couldn't make it." This collaboration between scientists and filmmakers represents a happy union between science and film.

"We can always find inspiration from sci-fi movies." Yi Zeng told the author Wang Shu directly. As a Professor from the Chinese Academy of Sciences who works on brain-inspired artificial intelligence and AI ethics, Yi Zeng's career inspiration dates back to the film Artificial Intelligence (2001) by Steven Spielberg. The film encouraged him to continue his scientific pursuit of building an AI that could love and exist in a symbiotic society with humans. After watching The Wandering Earth II, he gave his high praise and stated:

We can see what an AI can do for humans when they lack emotions and understanding of what we mean as human beings, as we see with MOSS (the fictional Intelligent Quantum Computer 550W in "The Wandering Earth II"). However, we also see how emotions were preserved for Hengyu Tu (a character in the film, an Artificial Intelligence scientist working in a fictional institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences). When he and his daughter were transformed into digital humans, their love for each other and humanity drove them to help Earth. With more scenarios and movies like these, my vision of building emotion-equipped, human-friendly AIs and realizing digital humans has never been that strong.

Scientists who work on movie productions can greatly increase the likelihood of a film being scientifically accurate. The goal of science consultants is to encourage filmmakers to balance scientific accuracy within their context of narratives, visuals, and audience experiences. In turn, the scientific community benefits from the high demand for advanced technologies created by sci-fi productions, allowing them to explore and develop cutting-edge technologies and applications. For instance, the scientist team from MARS, a Laboratory in the School of Information Science and Technology (SIST) at ShanghaiTech University, worked closely with the VFX team MORE, the main visual effect execution team of the film, to design a new kind of facial capture hardware, Fastage, for the film. Fastage uses both multi-view stereo and photometric stereo techniques to acquire facial geometry and physically based textures under fast motion. The scientists also developed a neural tracking algorithm that is compatible with the new hardware to animate the generated, physically based facial assets.

Participation in popular film productions can also raise awareness of scientific institutions and their work. For example, when the line "images from CSST have been received" appears in the film The Wandering Earth II, some viewers may wonder what CSST is. In reality, CSST (the China Space Station Telescope) is a large space-based optical telescope with an angular resolution similar to that of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), but with a field of view that is about 300 times larger. The main goal of CSST is to perform large-scale astronomical surveys and become an internationally accessible observatory for the astrophysical community. This is the first time that CSST has been depicted in a sci-fi film and used as a scientific tool to advance the plot. It is likely that, in the future, HST and the James Webb Space Telescope will no longer be the only stars of sci-fi films.

Furthermore, the scientific community and associations involved in the production of The Wandering Earth II not only enhanced public understanding of science but also benefited from the film's futuristic representation. Companies, such as Sugon, a manufacturer of supercomputers, gladly shared information about their technological advancements and designs, often for free, to showcase their products as futuristic in the high-profile film. This was a way to feature their participation in the film in their branding strategies. In The Wandering Earth II, Sugon's iconic immersion cooling devices were integrated into the fictional Intelligent Quantum Computer 550W, designed as a futuristic computing system at the Beijing Space Center. Although the Immersion Cooling system had not yet been officially released at the time of filming, it ultimately became a convincing portrayal of the future.

In conclusion, the deep collaboration between the film industry and the scientific community is still a rarity in China. However, the above experience was an exciting one for both parties involved. From the scientific community's perspective, these collaborations are highly valuable. Scientists' involvement in film production can significantly enhance the quality of the films, while also spreading science and technology to the masses, creating a new approach to science communication. We eagerly anticipate the emergence of more exceptional films that result from the harmonious blend of science and film.


This work is supported by the National Office for Philosophy and Social Science : Research on Chinese Sci-Fi Film on the bases of Industry and Aesthetics from a Comparative Perspective (grant no. 21ZD16).