When the Korean film Train to Busan came out, it was something of a revelation. The first zombie film to come from South Korea, it took the framework, tropes, and trappings of the genre and injected them with liberal amounts of character, heart, and outright devotion to storytelling, creating something that both transcended its genre and perfected it in new ways. In a very similar manner, we have Space Sweepers. Billed as Korea’s first big-budget, sci-fi blockbuster, it rises above its genre to become something undeniably radiant.
The eponymous sweepers are the crew of the Victory. In 2092, after the Earth has become a desert, the sweepers make money by scavenging space junk. During one hunt, they discover a young girl hiding in the cargo compartment of an abandoned ship. They soon find out that the girl is a robot called Dorothy who is actually a weapon of mass destruction. In their attempt to sell Dorothy for the cash they need to wipe out their debt, the crew discover that there’s much more to her than they’ve been led to believe and become the targets of everybody from rival sweepers to James Sullivan (Richard Armitage), a scientist and billionaire who’s trying to create a new human colony on Mars.
Now, some real talk. I know that I often try to keep my reviews on a more professional if sarcastic keel in an effort to present a level-headed and neutral analysis of film. But y’all. Not counting Avengers: Endgame, I have not been so emotionally moved by a movie in years as I was during the second half of Space Sweepers. I literally spent a full minute during the climax being completely gobsmacked. Mouth hanging open in shock, disbelief, and pure “ohmygod, they just DID that.”
But let’s back up a little.
The beginning of the film does start out a little on the rough side. In fact, a lot of the opening scenes seems fairly standard for a sci-fi film, albeit one with a dry sense of humor and a specific deployment of cyberpunk. After the groundwork is laid, however, the film slowly begins to raise itself from the foundational tropes, slowly entwining itself in a kind of heart-light energy. There is a very distinct emotional through line here, one that becomes brighter and more undeniable as the film reaches its climax.
A good reason for that is the performances and chemistry of the main cast. Like the film itself, each character seems to start in a place that’s a least partially born from cliche, but as the film goes on and we learn more about them, they become more and more vibrant. Song Joong-ki is a highly personable lead as Tae-ho, the Victory‘s pilot. He’s a man familiar with tragedy but carries himself with a spark of hope, even he spends a fair portion of the film trying to snuff that spark out. Between his youthful good looks and his dynamic performance, it’s hard to take your eyes off of him.
But he’s not alone here. Also on the Victory are the gruff, axe-happy mechanic Tiger Park (Jin Seon-kyu) and the cold, no-nonsense Captain Jang (Kim Tae-ri). It becomes clear fairly early that both are hiding their genuine selves under defensive, mercenary personae. Park becomes the first one to warm to Dorothy when they bring her on board, while Jang slowly comes back into contact with her own humanity the longer Dorothy’s on her ship. By the end of the movie, none of the crew are the same people we met 90 minutes prior, their characters having evolved with a remarkably organic subtlety.
Dorothy herself, who claims her name is actually Kot-nim, is a welcome presence on screen, too. Park Ye-rin gives a very natural performance that rarely grates or seems precocious. Her best moments are opposite the Victory‘s robot Bubs, voiced with aplomb by Yoo Hae-jin. Besides being a masterful CGI rendering, Bubs steals every scene its in, and its scenes with Dorothy are some of the most touching in the film.
No good sci-fi blockbuster exists without a compelling antagonist, and Richard Armitage is that in spades. While we do get an expositional monologue mid-film describing his history and hinting at his rationale for his actions, we don’t explore Sullivan as deeply as we do the crew of the Victory, and this is one of the few rough points in the film. However, Armitage’s performance is legitimately terrifying at times, intense and hypnotic, magnetic and memorable.
I could spend a lot of time going through all the things that Space Sweepers does right. I could talk about the gorgeous soundtrack by Kim Tae-seong that deserves a place up with the best in the genre. I could talk about the thrilling space battles and space station skirmishes. There’s the ridiculously efficient and snappy dialogue, the lived-in and pleasantly used sets, or the confident and considerate world-building.
However, what I found most notable about the film is its refined, yet immediate emotional energy. Make no mistake, the beats of the film were as meticulously plotted and planned as anything else, but when they come together, the seams and stitches vanish. I was so drawn into the struggles of the Victory and their fight against a system designed to crush them that I found myself at one point jumping out of my seat with enthusiasm. When Captain Jang brought out a giant laser gun for the final climax, I was gagged beyond belief. Even during the parts of the film I found predictable, I was on the edge of my seat in suspense.
I cannot recommend this film highly enough. Like Train to Busan, South Korea has created a new benchmark for genre cinema with Space Sweepers. My biggest complaint? That name. The original Korean title translates as Spaceship Victory, and that’s not only more appropriate, it’s a perfect encapsulation of just what this film is: a victory.
FBOTU Score: 9 out of 10 / A
Space Sweepers can be exclusively streamed on Netflix.