Korean sci-fi blockbuster Space Sweepers has style and panache to spare

Expect a combination of many genre touchstones in Netflix‘s Korean blockbuster, an action-packed adventure set in space during the late 21st century.

It’s the late 21st century. Earth is an uninhabitable wasteland ravaged by pollution and climate change—so the remains of humanity have taken to orbit and have brought their rubbish with them.

The ragtag crew of the spaceship The Victory eke out a living salvaging wrecks and scooping up orbital debris, but their humdrum existence takes a turn for the nigh-terminally exciting when they find what appears to be a seven year old girl, Dorothy (Park Ye-rin) in one of the derelicts they’re harvesting. As it turns out, she might be a robot weapon of mass destruction. So with space terrorists Black Fox on one side and Elon Musk-like tech trillionaire James Sullivan (Richard Armitage) on the other, both wanting to get their hands on the kid, the gang must decide what to do with their cute, potentially profitable, and incredibly dangerous unexpected cargo.

Let’s be clear: you’ve kind of seen this one before, or at least the basic narrative skeleton. Ragtag-crew-gets-caught-up-in-big-events is a storytelling staple from way back when ships were still made of wood, but even restricting ourselves to sci-fi there’s Alien, Firefly/Serenity, Cowboy Bebop, Guardians of the Galaxy, a good three or four different elements of Star Wars, and that’s just off the top of my head.

Korean writer and director Jo Sung-hee (A Werewolf Boy) throws it all into the mix, plus a heaping helping of Blade Runner, the better bits of Elysium, and countless other genre touchstones, cranks the fun and pathos up to the high levels fans of East Asian cinema are accustomed to, and lets her rip. The results are hugely satisfying.

Space Sweepers has style, verve and panache to spare. The universe we’re thrust into has that extremely granular, lived-in feel: all rust stains, dangling wires, corrugated plastic and prefab corridors. And while not too much attention is paid to real world space tech and physics, it’s got enough tactility and truthiness to pass muster (we should add The Expanse to the list of ingredients while we’re here).

The characters are archetypes, but they pop thanks to a great cast. Korean superstar Song Joong-ki (The Battleship Island, Arthdal Chronicles) is Tae-ho, our nominal hero, a former soldier with a tragic past who becomes Dorothy’s surrogate father. Jin Seon-kyu (The Fortress) is Tiger Park, the requisite tough guy engineer, all tattoos, dreadlocks and attitude.

Kin Tae-ri (The Handmaiden, 1987: When the Day Comes) is tough-talking, swashbuckling Captain Jang, the sort of role a Harrison Ford or Chris Pratt might fill in an American production. Rounding out the crew is Bubs (voiced by Yoo Hae-jin), a transgender military surplus robot saving up for a gender affirmation rebuild.

The whole thing feels like a live action anime, all big emotions, spectacular action, exquisite design and popping colours (for all the engine grease and grime, the colour palette makes great use of yellows and oranges to make sure our eyes don’t get bored). While at 136 minutes it’s a tad too long—and the third act doesn’t quite manage to keep all its many plates spinning—it’s so much fun that it doesn’t really matter.

Space Sweepers is being touted as Korea’s first sci-fi action blockbuster. Let’s hope it’s not the last—I’ll take another one of these every year for the rest of my life, thank you.