Space Sweepers (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): An uneven but likable South Korean space opera

South Korean film “Space Sweepers”, which was released on Netflix yesterday instead of getting released in South Korean theaters due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, is a mixed bag consisting of familiar but enjoyable stuffs. While it is full of style, mood, and details which could look much better on big screen, the movie is often hampered by its rather clunky narrative and thin characterization, and I only observed its story and characters with mild interest during its first half, Fortunately, the movie eventually comes to get boosted and accelerated enough during its second half while cheerfully wielding its humor and spirit as before, and I came to forgive many of its many shortcomings to some degree as savoring its several entertaining moments.

During the opening scene, the movie quickly establishes your average dystopian world set in 2092. Due to the increase of global environment pollution during last several decades, the Earth has become nearly uninhabitable for humans and many other species without any chance of regeneration and recovery, and everyone on the planet is eager to move to a big space city floating around the Earth, but, alas, only a small number of selected people are allowed to reside there. Numerous other people who cannot afford that resort to keep trying to live on the Earth or working in the space between the Earth and that big space city, and many of people living in the space have earned their living via working as ‘space sweepers’, who take care of various kinds of small and big space trashes.

A Korean guy named Tae-ho (Song Joong-ki) is one of such people, and we see how things have been not that good for him and three other Korean space sweepers who have worked along with him for years. Although they are usually the ones who can snatch anything valuable in the space faster than many other space sweepers out there, their financial situation is desperate to say the least (Their shabby spaceship, named Victory, can be foreclosed by those bank guys at any chance, for example), and even their latest catch, which looks pretty lucrative on the surface, does not help much in the end.

And then they find something unexpected from their latest catch, a heavily damaged spacecraft which turns out to contain a little Korean girl named Kot-nim (Park Ye-rin). When they subsequently come to realize that this small cute girl is an important asset pursued by not only the people controlling that big space city but also some shadowy organization, Tae-ho and his gangs instantly discern an irresistible opportunity to get rich enough to change their current financial status, but, of course, it is soon revealed that they are in a situation which may be way over their head.

As Tae-ho and his gangs try to survive as well as get the money promised to them, the movie sometimes lets us savor the background details of its world and people. Thanks to a small translator device on their ear, many different characters in the movie freely talk with each other in each own language, and that brings some colorful touches to its decidedly shabby background where numerous kinds of people, cultures, languages are co-existing together without much problem, though I must point out that most of non-Korean characters in the film are more or less than broad ethnic stereotypes.

The screenplay by director/writer Jo Sung-hee frequently stumbles and trudges during its first half as trying too many things, and its predictable drama does not provide much surprise for us. It is not much a spoiler to tell you that the hyper-cuteness of Kot-nim is going to melt the jaded and hardened attitude of not only Tae-ho but also his gangs, who all, yes, turn out to have each own personal matter to deal with. No matter how much Tae-ho tries to stick to pursuing his business interest, we all know from the beginning that he is going to do the right thing in the end, and we are reminded of that again via an obligatory flashback scene showing his past.

Anyway, the movie eventually arrives in the expected climactic part coupled with lots of bangs and crashes as our four main characters go all the way for protecting and saving their little girl by any means necessary, and it does not disappoint us at all with a number of well-made action scenes. Although it is a shame that the villains in the film including the big bad one played by Richard Armitage are not that distinctive, what is being at stake for our main characters feels palpable to us at least, and we gladly come to accept a blatant deux ex machina moment around the end of the story.

The four main cast members in the movie dutifully carry the film as often imbuing their respective characters with the considerable sense of life and personality. Although he is the most colorless one in the bunch, Song Joong-ki, who previously collaborated with Jo in “A Werewolf boy” (2012), is complemented well by the feisty acting from Kim Tae-ri, who surely enjoys her every moment as your typical spunky spaceship captain. While Jin Seon-kyu is effective as a no-nonsense tough guy who turns out to be more caring than expected, Yoo Hae-jin has a lot of fun with his android character, and I was particularly amused by how his android character comes to have some serious thought on a longtime wish – and how that later leads to a little surprise for us.

Overall, “Space Sweepers” is not entirely without flaws, but this is another interesting work from Jo. While I did not like “A Werewolf Boy” enough despite having a certain degree of amusement, I enjoyed “End of Animal” (2011) and “Phantom Detective” (2015), and “Space Sweepers” is satisfying enough in terms of achievement and entertainment even though being one or two steps below “End of Animal” and “Phantom Detective”. Despite my reservation, I glad to see that somebody finally makes a solid space opera flick in South Korea, and I guess that is one forward step for more good South Korean space movies to come in the future.

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