Netflix UK film review: Space Sweepers
Ivan Radford | On 08, Feb 2021
“The only place to go was up.” That’s James Sullivan (Richard Armitage) setting the scene for Space Sweepers, a Korean sci-fi blockbuster that introduces us to Earth in 2092, a planet so polluted that it’s essentially uninhabitable – and so Sullivan and his corporation UTS built an orbiting safe haven where the wealthy can live in comfort. For everyone else, the only way to go is down into the garbage, scraping together fragments of space junk to sell for cash.
Space Sweepers follows a group of salvagers who, on board the spaceship Victory, live from one job to the next – a gig economy that unfolds in the stars but keeps them grounded by never-ending debt. The group’s casual, gung-ho existence, though, is disrupted by the discovery of an unexpected piece of cargo: Dorothy (Park Ye-rin), a seven-year-old girl who, the news tells them, just might be a wanted robotic weapon of mass destruction. The gang make the inevitable decision: trade her in for a reward and carry on with their lives. Things, however, aren’t quite that simple.
If all of this is sounding familiar, that’s because it is: Space Sweepers borrows from all manner of sci-fi flicks and shows, ranging from Elysium’s rich-poor fable and Firefly’s fringe-society existence to Guardians of the Galaxy’s rag-tag ensemble comedy. As our heroes gradually develop a conscience and the seemingly noble Sullivan unveils a sinister side, everything becomes a race towards a predictable endpoint – albeit a race that lasts for a bloated 136 minutes.
But what Space Sweepers lacks in originality, it makes up for with invention, energy and sheer fun. Director Jo Sung-hee, who co-wrote the script with Yoon Seung-min and Yoo-kang Seo-ae, conjures up a living, breathing universe of flotsam and jetsam, of space jocks and jokes. There’s an element of Cowboy Bebop and even the Alien franchise in the junkyard action vibe, and the production team do a super job of balancing future tech with everyday clutter – debris is everywhere, from the neon-lit streets to the lived-in spacecraft interiors.
Centre to that authenticity is a cast of colourful characters with convincing team chemistry and a nice line in slapstick humour. Kim Tae-ri is brilliantly bad-ass as Captain Jang, Song Joong-ki brings a poignant note to his former UTS worker, the resourceful and quick-thinking Tae-ho, while Seon-kyu Jin is entertaining as the veteran engineer Tiger Park. The highlight, though, is reprogrammed android Bubs, whose sarcastic comments are delivered with withering charisma by Yoo Hae-jin.
The film is perhaps at its best when simply allowing this collection of archetypes to banter their way through events, with the script beautifully flowing from Korean to English. But while the whole thing gets a bit carried away in its overlong climax, there’s so much pleasure to be had in just seeing the explosion of world-building on screen. Blending the gorgeously varied ships and scenery with slick CGI, the camera flies through the vividly rendered sci-fi spectacle at a breakneck speed, producing stunning visuals that are somewhere between The Fifth Element and a visualisation on Windows Media Player. It’s a thrilling flourish of imagination and ambition from a filmmaking team who share a creative vision that the only way is up.
Space Sweepers is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.