The best part of Jo Sung-hee‘s Space Sweepers is that it never really takes itself too seriously. A sci-fi swashbuckling action-adventure, the film is chock full of cheesy one-liners, wildly dramatic plots, multiple near-death scenes, and physics-defying space action. With inspiration reminiscent of the 2003 Planetes anime and a plot of mythical proportions, it was easy to ignore some of Space Sweepers faults and get swept away (no pun intended) by the shiny exciting veneer of the film.
The following review includes major spoilers for the film Space Sweepers.
In the year 2092, humanity is living a very different life. Earth has become a vast desert where people must wear gas masks and live in squalor while the UTS corporation has built a new home in space where the environment mimics Earth during her glory days. With an eye on colonizing Mars, UTS founder, and CEO, James Sullivan (Richard Armitage) is pioneering the way for better life for humankind. But, like all eccentric founders of megacorporations in sci-fi universes, it doesn’t take much to scratch beneath the surface of Sullivan’s exterior to reach the rotten core.
Richard Armitage is honestly fantastic as the villain in this film, managing to look like an anime villain while still exiting in live-action. He’s charismatic, eccentric, a genius, and potentially immortal? We’re told he’s 152 years old and it’s not-so-subtly implied that this is not due to a healthy diet and regular exercise. The fact that his long life is not explained is just one of the main plot holes in Space Sweepers. He’s the classic evil villain, emotionally distant with psychopathic tendencies, and he’s willing to let billions of people die based on some kind of twisted ethical eugenics. It’s not really explained how he got his rise to becoming the essential ruler of the new world, but he sits comfortably at the tip-top.
Plummeting to the bottom of the social ladder, we have our heroes: the crew of the Victory. They are space sweepers, glorified trash bounty hunters. If you don’t know about how insanely polluted the airspace around Earth is, just look up space debris and how close we are to space shrapnel raining down from the skies. Among space sweepers, the Victory is the best of the best. Cutthroat and mercenary in their own way, they’re liable to steal hauls from their fellow sweepers. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, and they’re at the top of the pecking order. Still, the crew is mired in debt from illegal upgrades and bad financial decisions and are constantly forced to take on jobs to repay a never-ending amount of debt. The group consists of Captain Jang (Kim Tae-ri), Tiger Park (Jin Seon-kyu), Kim Tae-ho (Song Joong-ki), and an android named Bubs (Yoo Hae-jin, Kim Hyang-gi). For a ragtag group of spacers, the crew actually consists of two geniuses, a military robot, and a former drug kingpin, as you might expect.
Jang is a genius engineer who once worked for UTS making everything from fancy contact lenses to bombs. She then became radicalized and turned into an assassin, becoming the only person who ever got close enough to point a gun in Jame Sullivan’s face. How she survived that assassination attempt is never explained, but now she’s the ship captain. Tiger was a former drug kingpin who was arrested and sentenced to death, and his escape from capture is also never explained, but for a former drug lord, he manages to have the softest heart out of the group. Tae-ho, another certified genius, was a child soldier who worked for UTS, committing mass murder on behalf of the corporation, but one day he had a change of heart after finding a baby amidst one of his massacres. He adopted her and named her Su-ni. He acts as one of the main protagonists of the story but his motivation to find the corpse of his daughter floating out in the space is the least interesting.
Bubs, a former military robot, is actually one of the most well-developed characters. We learn early on that she is trying to save up for an illegal skin graft so that she can appear human, a costly procedure and one that she saves up for but her funds keep getting depleted when the ship runs into problems. Although Bubs has a male voice, the skins she aspires to buy are all female. As a trans character, Bubs’ gender identity is never put in the spotlight as an outlier or made to seem unnatural, she simply is who she is. This feels like the biggest step forward when it comes to this genre, a small moment of representation that is far more exciting than any plot concerning magical nanorobots.
But, there must still be magical nanorobots. The crew discovers a child hidden within their space junk haul and learns that her name is Dorothy (Park Ye-rin). The news has broadcasted her face all across the solar system, calling her an android and a weapon of mass destruction created by a terrorist group called Black Fox. After taking Dorothy in, the crew bargains with a man named Kang Hyeon-u (Kim Mu-yeol), a presumed Black Fox member, holding Dorothy for ransom for $2 million. But, after a failed handover and more time spent with Dorothy, it becomes obvious to the crew that Dorothy is not actually an android but a human.
Her name is Kang Kot-nim, the daughter of Kang Hyeon-u, and a child who has been injected with nanobots after being on the brink of death. The nanobots ended up forming some kind of magical bond with Kot-nim and she is literally able to speak with the other nanobots and do things like protecting the ship from nanobots or making plants grow. Kot-nim acts more like a catalyst for the characters, she exists to learn about the crew members, appeals to their soft human side, and generally is just an extra cute child.
After a bunch of jumbled plots, with one involving the Black Fox, who we find out are actually environmental activists and are summarily killed off not long after this revelation, and a killer assassin lady, we reach the climax of the story. Sullivan sends ships after the crew, he is bent on destroying Earth by crashing The Factory (a giant space station home to the space sweepers) into it and causing a cataclysmic event. The crew finds a Krypton bomb on The Factory and after a clever underhanded switcheroo, they leave Kot-nim with their spacer friends and fly the Krypton bomb 5,000 km away. The bomb will deactivate the nanobots within Kot-nim, so it is a race to the perimeter of the detonation zone. Sullivan gets in his own ship and is chasing after the crew, searching for Kot-nim and eventually perishing after falling for the trick and dying in the explosion.
Of course, our heroes, thanks to the conveniently indestructible nanobots and Kot-nim, end up unscathed. I’m a little confused as to how the nanobots managed to protect the crew since the bomb was the type that was specifically engineered to destroy nanobots. This seems like a pretty glaring plot hole to me, but maybe I missed something in the massive amount of extraneous worldbuilding that came with this 136-minute film. The main issue with Space Sweepers is that there aren’t really any stakes. We never once think that the crew will die, we always expect Tae-ho to somehow find his daughter’s body floating out in space. You always expected the good guys to win. But despite this no-stakes approach and the healthy injection of melodrama, the film still manages to be enjoyable. The CG is beautiful, painting the world of 2092 richly in saturated tone and shimmering space crafts. There is absolutely nothing lacking when it comes to how immersed you feel when you’re watching the film, it’s 24 billion won budget saw to that.
The film has been getting some praise for portraying a multicultural solar system, but for all its side characters who speak Chinese (mangled Mandarin, confusing for a film that had investment from Huayi Tencent), Danish, French, and Russian, the main cast are all Korean — aside from the evil white British Richard Armitage. As with most space operas, the multicultural nature of space ends up being pretty homogenous when it comes to the main cast. You already know that if the script was flipped, and we saw a Western film with a fully white cast taking on an Asian villain in the same setting, there would be a lot more hate than love. That’s not to say I don’t love the all-Asian cast, I love it. But for a Korean-made film, there’s nothing surprising seeing the main cast that is all Korean existing in a multicultural world full of one-dimensional side characters. On top of that, Netflix subtitles that seem to mistranslate a good portion of the beginning of the film make the initial dive into the universe difficult.
And after all of that, there is a happy ending, as expected. Jang stops drinking (there’s a couple of moments when she’s holding a flask but this never really gets in the way of her competency), Tiger gets his tattoos removed (I guess it scared Kot-nim’s friends?), Tae-ho is reunited with his daughter in a weird nanobot afterlife in order to say goodbye (I have absolutely no idea how this works), and Bubs gets her skin graft and now reads Rilke in space, yay! Kot-nim stays with her found family, occasionally going down to Earth to grow trees with UTS apologizing and paying reparations. Despite a rather lackluster but warm and fuzzy ending, Space Sweeper is still fun. The exciting action shots, the stunning graphics, the found family dynamics; it all makes for a movie that you don’t (and shouldn’t) think too hard about, one that you can simply sit back and enjoy for what it is.
Space Sweepers is available for streaming on Netflix now.