Sci-fi romp “Space Sweepers” is a delightful diversion

Although teeming with explosions and killer robots, this Korean film is also surprisingly sentimental.

Lydia Snow, Freelancer

During 2021, Netflix is releasing a star-studded slate of original movies intended to rival blockbuster theatrical releases. One of the first of these releases is Korean film “Space Sweepers,” an offbeat science fiction comedy with heart.

BRAVE NEW WORLD

Set in the far future, “Space Sweepers” spends its first 15 minutes on worldbuilding and plot exposition. “With Earth no longer habitable, the only place to go was up,” a narrator says, as viewers learn that a lucky 5% of humans have fled a dystopian planet Earth to seek refuge in UTS, an opulent space resort. 

Portrayed by Richard Armitage, UTS owner and planner James Sullivan mimics the attitude of larger-than-life American business moguls like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. Of course, there is a sinister motive behind Sullivan’s spotless paradise. He sends all waste from UTS to Earth via massive elevator shafts, stealing the planet’s precious resources in return—as his true purpose is to destroy planet Earth due to its squalor and corruption. Sullivan is clearly a villain from the start, and a one-sided villain at that.

At the core of “Space Sweepers” is its titular group of gambling-loving goof-offs, who cruise around in their trusty spaceship, averting cosmic disasters and refusing to conform to Sullivan’s idealized version of society. 

The Space Sweepers’ personalities are nothing short of cliches: there is a tattooed, tough guy with combat skills, an awkward robot sidekick with too many jokes and a no-nonsense, leather-clad lady with street smarts. The film largely centers around the gang’s fourth, most charming member, a young man known as Tae-ho.

HAVING A BLAST

Although “Space Sweepers” hints at class differences and poverty issues, its goal is not to take a crack at the elite, or to present any other kind of complex, provocative message. It is clear from the start that “Space Sweepers” is no sweeping epic, but rather a teen movie of sorts with sitcom-esque interactions between characters and a feel-good message to boot.

Director Jo Sung-hee is already a well-known name in the K-drama industry, having previously directed “Werewolf Boy,” the highest-grossing Korean melodrama. For “Space Sweepers,” he channels an irreverent, playful tone which almost seems more suited for a cartoon or anime—an intentional choice on his part. According to an interview, Jo aimed to take the kind of space adventure story that would usually be explored through animation and tell it through live-action instead. 

SPACE GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN

While performing maintenance on a space barge, Tae-Ho, portrayed by Song Joong-ki, finds a small girl tucked inside a cargo pod. He brings the rosy-cheeked, adorable preschooler back to the Space Sweepers’ ship, only to watch a news report and realize that the young lass, known as Dorothy or Kot-nim, is actually a mutant with telekinetic capabilities and a built-in H-bomb. To complicate matters even more, a terrorist organization known as Black Fox has a price on her head.

Thus, the plot direction of “Space Sweepers” quickly manifests itself—a ragtag gang finds themselves stuck with a youngster in need of babysitting and protection from a terrorist mafia. In their quest to reunite Kot-nim with her long-lost father, the Space Sweepers take on an assortment of high-tech missions, battles and trials. At the same time, light-hearted, childish pratfalls ensue as Kot-nim constantly begs for attention from the adults around her. 

Many movies have already told this sort of high-stakes story, but “Space Sweepers” almost seems unabashedly aware that it resembles other films. For instance, one scene where Tae-ho and Kot-nim blunderingly scramble through an air duct appears to pay homage to Bruce Willis and his air duct crawl in “Die Hard.” 

Most background information about the film’s characters and world is revealed through flashback scenes. Viewers learn, for example, that Kot-nim’s powers originated from a medical treatment that implanted her body with illness-curing nanobots.

OUT-OF-THIS WORLD WACKINESS

“Space Sweepers” takes a little time to warm up to. However, for viewers who are willing to suspend their disbelief and embrace the film’s nonsensical mishmash of sci-fi elements, it is quite a fun watch. As the film progresses, action scenes spiral into a dizzying sugar high, complete with punching, kicking, head-bonking and harpoon throwing. 

Unlike some Netflix original films, “Space Sweepers” feels like it is made for TV. The CGI is amateurish at times—several action shots look as if they came from a mid-2000s PlayStation game—but the visual effects are decent for the film’s relatively modest budget of approximately $21 million. Scenes where spaceships careen through cargo port tunnels and characters dodge missiles are highly entertaining.

If you are looking for an interplanetary adventure with a different tone and mission than Hollywood blockbusters, then “Space Sweepers” might be for you. Instead of offering mind-blowing plot twists or heavy subject matter, the film keeps things simple, breathing a bit of technicolor zaniness into familiar sci-fi and action tropes. “Space Sweepers” is pure distraction, and sometimes that is exactly what viewers need.

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