Housed as the first blockbuster Korean space opera, jo sung-hee’s space sweepers move quickly to undermine whatever greatness might come from that statement. During the launch of the spaceship Victory, Jo turns the camera to the pilot’s feet to notice his tattered socks, immediately undoing any possible glamor from the idea of space travel. That’s where the Space Sweeper’s interests lie: with people in need and struggling to fall through the cracks in his hypothetical happy new world.
The year is 2092, and Earth is on the verge of uninhabitable, overrun by arid deserts and the dry orange gradation of Blade Runner 2049. Everyone who can afford it has moved off the ruined planet to live in orbit. in a seemingly utopian colony called Eden, built and governed by a megacorporation.
jo’s movie is about people who can’t afford the benefits of the new world, including the eponymous “space sweepers” of victory. the protagonists make a living as a group of independent interplanetary rag men who pick up the scraps left behind by wealthy utopians. street sweepers are perpetually bankrupt, as destitution looms far more ominously than the cold emptiness of space. (“Between repairs and fines, we only pay debt with more debt”, complains one of the crew from the beginning).
His precarious but simple existence is interrupted by the accidental discovery of a little girl named Dorothy, who turns out to be an android supposedly containing a nuclear weapon. The crew initially sees Dorothy as a goose that lays the golden eggs, and they quickly seek to ransom her to the highest bidder out of poverty. but of course they warm to it and lead the movie into a reasonably predictable but genuinely moving arc of found family. While predictable, it’s still delightful to watch this cast of hardened guys soften in Dorothy’s presence, unable to mask her glee at being included in her drawings, or referred to as “uncle.”
In the beginning, the team is simply focused on amassing enough money to buy their way to fulfillment, no matter what that means to each member. For former government agent Tae-ho (Song Joong-ki, a frequent collaborator of Director Jo), he is paying the authorities to find and identify the missing body of a relative he lost long ago in an accident. Sure enough, he is accused of closing. There’s a little less to learn about the cool and arrogant Captain Jang, Kim Tae-ri of Maiden fame, whose desire for revenge remains vague until the end of the film. Meanwhile, Jin Sun-kyu (The Good, The Bad, And The Weird) has a blast busting out as the former gang leader in Tiger Park, who simply finds the blue-collar job humiliating and wants to buy his way out. he relives his glory days bragging about how many hands he cut off in his prime.
The interplay between these characters is the film’s saving grace, and the reason it remains a joy to watch, even as its designation as “the first of its kind” gradually becomes a drag on your neck. While the characters and setting are familiar, the movie is even better when you watch the misfit team’s antics, whether they’re getting into raucous fistfights in low-stakes poker games or getting makeovers with each other. Ironically, despite its supposedly elevated status, Space Sweepers is best as a reunion comedy.
That said, the team’s vaguely sketched motivations sometimes threaten to become the film’s undoing, as the process of getting to know them is its greatest strength. entertaining as they are, outside of tae-ho, they can feel one-dimensional. There is one exception: a military robot named Bubs. the bubs’ desire to assimilate with the human members of their crew is implicitly expressed through casual dialogue and their amusingly cozy loungewear. its arc is surprisingly smooth, and while its (brief) exploration of gender identity exists mostly in the fringes of the film, it’s a nice departure from the pseudo-depth and frequent navel-gazing of most horror stories. “artificial intelligence that wants to be human.”
Outside of the bubs story, there’s little subtext for space sweepers, which wears most of its class war implications and messages on its sleeve. it’s full of narrative beats that will be immediately familiar to anyone, not just sci-fi enthusiasts – it wraps a fairly traditional plot of family found within a larger conspiracy to wipe out the poor people still stranded on earth. At odds with the victory crew is a seemingly benevolent CEO (Richard Armitage), who quickly reveals his true nature as an eco-fascist and misanthrope. While he is not an original role, he does benefit significantly from Armitage’s trademark ferocity. The ruthlessness he brought to his role as Francis Dolarhyde in Hannibal adds a bit more punch to lines like “I hope you burn this deep in your heart!”
Between bursts of originality, space sweepers frequently appear as a collection of tried and tested concepts. Billionaire Survivors in particular might remind some movie fans of Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium Flop. but the sense of humor sets it apart from other post-apocalyptic sci-fi movies. the film is never too moody to be above the occasional fart joke or fall. it also contains nuances of ad astra, which had its own amusingly mundane presentation of what space colonization would genuinely be like, as just more of the same but somewhere else: the bee on the moon phenomenon. Apart from this, one of the most striking elements of the film is its casual multiculturalism. characters from supposedly dissolved nations speak to each other in a mixture of their native languages, while English appears primarily as the language of power and of the film’s white antagonists.
Through that multiculturalism and humorous observations on the daily minutiae of life in the future, Space Sweepers tends to come off as a live-action riff on Shinichiro Watanabe’s famous Cowboy Bebop anime series. Bebop’s DNA is visible in every space sweeper, from their gritty, characterful ships to their feisty crew trying to make their way in a future gig economy.
but where bebop stitched its vignettes together into a larger tapestry, the grand conspiracies of space sweepers feel like they’re at odds with that shaggy-dog atmosphere, dragging the film past its natural ending point. The mix of sfx and intricate set design are nothing short of impressive to witness, both in their portrayal of large-scale space battles and in cinematographer byeon bong-seon’s dynamic capture of opulent future nightclubs, dingy alleys, and the debris outside the shelter of the walled paradise of eden. Director Jo is usually creative and concise in building action sequences, with some amusing visualizations, such as bubbles swinging between pursued spaceships like a space-faring spider-man. the work is distinctive and well-directed, even if its most significant strengths lie more in the charm of its characters than in its sci-fi grandeur.
space sweepers manages to rise above the familiarity of its concepts, bolstered by the sheer charisma of its cast. its most exciting and moving moments are found in the back-and-forth between its motley cast of characters and the minor details of its near-future world. imagining space as an extension of earthly capitalism is certainly not new, but at least the cast of space sweepers have the collective charm to make the material feel fresh and worth watching among the growing debris of streaming content.
space sweepers is now streaming on netflix.