Jo Sung-hee’s 2021’s Space Sweepers (Korean: 승리호; Hanja: 勝利號; RR: Seungriho; lit. Spaceship Victory) is a Korean space-opera film.
The Earth is polluted and surely doomed. At least, that is the case put forth by visionary UTS CEO James Sullivan (Richard Armitage). Sullivan is determined to save a chosen few of his friends, giving them refuge on a terraformed Mars. Vastly wealthy, and with his own private army, he seems sure to get his way.
The Victory’s crew are not among the chosen. They are just blue-collar non-citizens on whose labour the wealthy’s lavish lifestyles depend. Victory’s crew – humans Kim Tae-ho (Song Joong-ki), Tiger Park (Jin Seon-kyu), and robot Bubs (Yoo Hae-jin), and Captain Jang (Kim Tae-ri) — salvage debris from heavily trafficked space lanes. In other words, garbagemen.
Not people who could possibly impede someone like the great James Sullivan.
The cash-strapped crew are trapped in a system carefully designed to keep them mired in accumulating debts. Just the sort of people to jump on any chance to make a fortune. This opportunity comes when, while surveying promising debris, they discover what seems to be a living girl. Not being monsters, they rescue her.
It happens this particular young girl has been on the news. UTS is looking for “Dorothy,” as they call her. She is, UTS, assures the world, an extremely realistic humanoid robot concealing within itself a powerful hydrogen bomb. Dorothy was stolen by Black Fox terrorists. UTS would definitely pay to get Dorothy back. So might the Black Fox group. Truly, there is no losing scenario here!
The first hint that their big payday may need to be deferred comes at an attempted cash-for-Kot-nim exchange, when UTS soldiers open fire on Kot-nim. The second comes when none of the bullets manage to touch Kot-nim. Kot-nim is a little girl but she is a human girl with very special abilities.
UTS has not been entirely forthcoming. Black Fox are not terrorists. Dorothy is actually a girl named Kang Kot-nim, not a hydrogen bomb at all1. UTS would like to get their hands on Kot-nim, but UTS does not really care whether the company gets its hands on the girl and then kills her or whether it happens the other way round. The important goal is to ensure that Kot-nim and her peculiar gifts do not impede the birth of the great Martian utopia. All our heroes have managed to do is add their own names to UTS’s kill list.
This movie was in no way inhibited by plausible physics. This is a movie where space stations and a Lagrange point are as distant as plot requires them to be. This is a movie where a plucky robot saving up her pennies for gender confirmation can harpoon passing spaceships. This is not a Traveller scenario. It might work as a Scum and Villainy adventure.
UTS company PR claims that Mars can be successfully terraformed, while restoring the already somewhat habitable Earth is utterly impractical. This is what experts call the Big Lie. It would be easier to restore the Earth than to terraform Mars. But Sullivan wants Earth dead and gone, once he has stocked Mars with his chosen few. Who by some coincidence seem to be mostly white and rich.
Many viewers of a certain vintage may compare this to an old fourteen-episode SF property from the dawn of the 21st century. Similarities are mostly superficial. What stands out is a stark difference. The old TV show had a few borrowed Chinese phrases and sets filled mostly by white people. The Victory’s crew is Korean, but their environment is diverse, one where workers from all backgrounds speak their native tongues (translated by convenient devices). Mind you, the people Sullivan chooses to populate his imagined Mars conform pretty closely that old show’s casting choices.
It might be better to compare Sweepers to a different film. I’d say that Space Sweepers has great Princess Bride energy2. On the one side, a lower-class crew of dubious reputation3. On the other, a villain of great power.
Which is to say, I enjoyed the movie.
Space Sweepers is available on Netflix.
1: First hint that she is not a robot bomb: robots don’t poop.
2: This is not a kissing movie. The space where romance would fit is instead filled with parental terror. Kids can and have died in space. Tae-ho needs lots of cash so he can pay others to locate his daughter’s corpse (lost in space when debris wrecked their space habitat).
3: Like the characters in Princess Bride , the down-at-heels crew have remarkable talents. Tae-ho is former Commander of the Space Guards, Captain Jang is a former Special Forces Squad officer, Tiger Park is a former gang leader, and Bubs is a military robot. One might expect Sullivan to be taken aback by this panoply of talent once he reads his opponents’ dossiers, but he has Bond-Villain-level confidence in his ability to defeat his foes. This makes sense, because Sullivan is a Bond villain. Specifically, Hugo Drax.