Space Sweepers is a big budget B movie. A Korean made and led, but globally minded space adventure the likes of which I have not really come across before. Chinese blockbuster The Wandering Earth bears some resemblance in looks, but is very different in feel. Tonally Space Sweepers faintly recalls a variety of animated properties. The crew of the ship Victory work as space janitors, like in Planetes, but it’s a much showier affair that turns tense and meticulous salvage work into a wild cross between lassoing and harpooning chunks of careering metal. This rag-tag bunch capture some of the vibe of the main cast of Cowboy Bebop, but none of the characters are direct analogues. (If direct analogues are what you’re after, there’s the Netflix live action take on Cowboy Bebop.) The occasional use of retrieval claws as weapons reminded me of the spaceship grapple battles from those couple of episodes of Outlaw Star I watched at an anime society gathering way back when. The state of the Earth is similar to that seen in Wall·E although the planet hasn’t been totally abandoned yet. Consult your own viewing history for other parallels, but Space Sweepers is proudly its own movie, going so hard in so many departments that despite some iffy and awkward moments, it’s an enjoyable ride to the end.
The featured four crew members of the Victory are: hard-drinking yet almost arrogantly competent Captain Jang (Kim Tae-ri), skilled and haunted pilot Tae-ho (Song Joong-ki), strong and justice-minded engineer Tiger (Jin Sun-kyu) and former military robot who wants to be human Bubs (voiced by Yoo Hai-jin). Recklessly adept as space sweepers, yet still perennially broke, they discover in a salvaged shuttle a cute android kid possessing cataclysmic power. Known as Dorothy (Park Ye-rin), this android girl is being pursued by various groups and the Victory crew find themselves in a potentially very profitable position — if only Dorothy wasn’t so dang adorable.
It’s a fine group to centre the film around as they bounce off each other, sparking conflict in their selfish moments and synergy when they work together. Everyone has their own history which surfaces bit by bit as the story progresses, with Dorothy the catalyst for much of the shifting motivations and character growth. Tae-ho is the central character, searching for his own daughter lost in an orbital accident and now faced with this android that painfully evokes his loss. Bubs is the most fun, offering a robotic outlook on life that contrasts with the human concerns of the rest of the crew and often amusing simply through clothing choices.
Away from the Korean core characters, the plentiful wider cast is realistically international, but unfortunately not as convincing and hampered by clunky scripting. To clear the obvious hurdle of inter-language communication, very early on there’s a bit that draws attention to the electronic voice translators in such a sudden and jarringly edited way it’s like being slapped across the face with a Babel fish. Having explained away how the characters can understand each other, the audience has to understand too, and the subtitles for this film must have been a heck of a job. Audio descriptive captions provide the most detail, such as what language a character is speaking, plus some little gems like [heroic music] or [nanobots chirping]. However, with so many languages in the mix and overdubbing on some parts there’s some subtitle mismatches, like someone with English dialogue being attributed as speaking German, or a line given to Bubs when there was no audio. Sticking to subtitles for non-English dialogue has its own drawbacks, as characters sometimes change language mid-sentence, making for a quick switch from listening to reading, and there are multiple heavy accents requiring adept aural acclimatisation to parse. I could excuse this struggle with full comprehension as imparting some of the messiness of living in a global space village, but it did make viewing rather exhausting, especially for a movie of around two hours. Events around the one hour mark feel like the climax, but it’s only halfway through!
There’s also a considerable helping of chunky plot exposition that fares poorly. An unintentionally funny moment has a guy in a suit drop a line of dialogue relevant to the plot that he immediately adds is irrelevant to the commercial presentation displayed behind him. The most notable non-Korean actor, Richard Armitage as head of the monolithic UTS corporation, has to cope with reams of story explanation, often wrapped in odd wording and accompanied by character motivations that feel quite forced. His sudden bouts of extreme varicose veins and voice distortion are distracting in themselves and more so as they are never adequately explained. Some of the minor side characters that fill out the world come off better, such as a corporate cop who boards the Victory at a most inopportune juncture, or fellow space sweeper Pierre (Kevin Dockry), who won’t quit trying to win back the heart of Captain Jang with cringey guitar odes, even in the face of her threats.
When our characters (often literally) swing into action, it’s kinetic to the point of being frenetic, making mental exhaustion again a danger. Ships hurtle around, display screens flash, sound blares and characters yell at each other with previously mentioned comprehension difficulties in tow, all through often rapidly edited and shaky shots. Maybe it doesn’t really matter. They did some rad-looking stuff, even if it’s not clear what exactly happened without a rewind. The reason the many action moments work is twofold. As previously mentioned, the Victory crew and Dorothy are such great characters the desire for them to succeed is strong, increasingly so as the film goes on. Secondly, the effects work is flashy. CG ship models and animation are high quality, and when shots hold long enough to register fully they reach for the grandiose sweep of space.
In the quieter moments, the well realised setting lowers the bar to buy in to the story. Bubs is as believable as any CG robot from recent live action Star Wars fare. Detailed production design is complemented by more great effects work as digital set extensions flesh out the dire state of the ravaged Earth and densely packed space stations, contrasted with the orbital paradise promised by UTS to select corporate citizens.
Despite the jumble of elements squished together, a few twists in the story still land and the K-drama heart of the narrative is muscular enough to sweep away the excess plot guff. Little seeds are planted that bloom appropriately into affecting character beats and the final dash of the Victory crew underdogs stretches the emotions in all the best ways. Bubs pings from ship to ship like a robotic Tarzan in zero-g while another character is strapped to a spaceship balcony to dish the pain with a talking laser gun. And again, Dorothy is so dang adorable, for the audience as well as the characters, that the stakes are hefty enough to hit home.
So even though it’s a bit rough, Space Sweepers has a lot of pluck. The parts don’t always line up, but the beat is strong and the band clearly loves what they’re doing. It’s the kind of big budget B movie that feels at home on Netflix, its disparate components unlikely to draw a big enough crowd to the box office to make it worthwhile, but will hopefully find a solid niche via streaming. (Or a DVD release. I live in hope.)