As its name implies, Space Sweepers is an action-packed film that takes place beyond Earth’s stratosphere in 2092. It was released on Netflix on February 5th, 2021 and stars Song Joong-ki, Kim Tae-ri, Jin Seon-kyu, and Yoo Hae-jin.
Seventy-one years from now, Earth has become a harsh desert. A select few are chosen to live in paradisiac space colonies created by a corporation called UTS, but 95% of humanity is left to suffer. Due to the technological advancements and construction of these colonies, space is full of trash. In order to make a meager living, the disadvantaged clean up the expired satellites, ships, and building materials. They are called space sweepers.
The movie follows a ragtag crew of space sweepers on board a ship called “Victory”. The main protagonist is Kim Tae-ho (Song Joon-ki), a scrappy maverick of a pilot who’ll do anything for money. Then there’s Captain Jang (Kim Tae-ri), the ship’s fearless female captain, Tiger Park (Jin Seon-kyu) and Bubs (voiced by Yoo Hae-jin). Tiger Park is a retired drug lord and Bubs is the trash-talking robot every space adventure seems to have.
Tae-ho and the rest of the crew are in massive debt, and doing everything they can not to lose Victory. Their lives get turned upside down when they find a little girl hiding in the ship’s airbag compartment.
The twist? She’s actually an android named Dorothy (Korean name: Kot-nim, which means “flower”) that was recently stolen from UTS by a terrorist organization called the Black Foxes. And she’s got a bomb built into her tiny frame. Despite the risk, Tae-ho and the rest of Victory decide to ransom her to the Black Foxes in the hopes that she’ll solve all their money problems. But when they get caught between the powerful corporation and the dangerous terrorist group, they realize money is the least of their problems.
I’d like to start off by saying this movie is good. And that’s coming from someone who isn’t usually moved by films in this genre. But I laughed, gasped, and even got a little teary-eyed while watching Space Sweepers. There were a lot of plot twists (big and small) that added layers to the story, and the characters were relatable and multi-faceted. Lastly, the special effects were solid and the action sequences were fun.
I could write a whole essay, but to keep things simple, I’m going to break this review up into sections. There will be light spoilers in certain sections, but nothing major so you can still enjoy the movie.
When it comes to fantasy and sci-fi, worldbuilding is very important since it’s a world the audience is unfamiliar with. I thought Space Sweepers did a good job in this regard. Sure, it takes place around the Earth, but it’s an Earth that doesn’t exist, so how it works needed to be explained.
The worldbuilding isn’t expansive, but it paints a clear picture of how things work. I understand how society is set up, who rules, and how the law operates. As stated above, UTS corporation rules and 5% of the population lives on the lush space colonies they crafted while the rest of mankind lives in Earth’s squalor. The founder of UTS is a character named James Sullivan, and he only invites the most “upstanding” citizens to live on the colonies. He believes people’s moral disposition is strictly tied to their DNA, and the thought of having someone with unsavory traits living on one of the colonies disgusts him.
The only exception are the individuals UTS recruits to the Space Guards. The Space Guards are essentially law enforcement. They look like a cross between Storm Troopers and something out of the movie Tron: Legacy. Space Guards are equipped with giant guns, and generally wreak havoc on civilians, guilty or innocent (but mostly innocent).
When it comes to how people in society are treated, there’s a big class issue. You’re either a UTS citizen or a non-citizen. If you’re the latter, you’re taxed heavily, bullied by the Space Guards, and have very little rights. You can’t even call the police without waiting on hold all day.
Characters (light spoilers)
If there’s one thing you must know, it’s that most of the characters are more than meets the eyes. Like Transformers.
- Kim Tae-ho: He’s a perfect example of the statement above. I was pretty indifferent toward him until it’s revealed that the reason he needs money is to find his daughter Su-ni. They were separated when a large piece of debris hit their location, and it’s heart-breaking. He can pay a recovery service to find her, but since he’s not a UTS citizen Su-ni isn’t a priority nor does he have enough money to pay. After three years, Su-ni will leave orbit and be lost to the darkness of space forever. It’s some pretty heavy stuff, and you can almost feel how much guilt Tae-ho carries around. The movie makes it clear that he got into space sweeping to make money to pay for the service, but I also feel like he got into it to prevent the situation from happening again. Tae-ho forms a begrudging bond with Dorothy/Kot-nim, and it’s as bittersweet as marmalade.
- Captain Jang Hyun-sook: Pretty early on, you learn she’s tough and smart, but for the longest time the movie makes you think that’s it. I was disappointed at the fact that she didn’t have a backstory, but boy was I wrong! It caught me by surprise toward the end, and not only humanized her, but made her more relevant to the plot.
- Tiger Park: He controls Victory’s engine, and is an ex-drug lord with aggressive tattoos, but is a total softie. He’s the first crew member to bond with Kot-nim, and their interactions are so cute.
- Bubs: What I thought was your “typical snarky robot in a space movie” turned out to be so much more! By the end of the movie, Bubs ends up undergoing a thought-provoking personal journey of self-discovery.
- Dorothy/Kot-nim: She’s so adorable, and her child actress Park Ye-rin does a fantastic job playing her. She also ends up being one of the biggest plot twists of the movie. I really wasn’t expecting her storyline to take the turn it did.
- Dr. Sullivan: I’m sure it didn’t come as a surprise to anyone that he was the villain. As is usually the case with these villains, he saw his family die at a young age and now has Thanos-like goals to make the universe a cleaner and better place by ridding it of “defects”. These “defects” are basically the 95% of people who don’t fit his definition of an “upstanding citizen”. Dr. Sullivan’s a nasty piece of work, because he broadly paints people as either good or bad, but doesn’t hold himself to the same logic or standards. He’s allowed to be more “nuanced”, and commit heinous acts in the pursuit of something “good”.
Climax (light spoilers)
The crew members of Victory all end up forming a bond with Kot-nim, and it’s revealed that she has amazing powers that could cause the Earth to sprout vegetation again. Dr. Sullivan knows this, which is why he sent the Space Guards to get her back. He doesn’t want the general public to find out, because it would ruin his “Mars Project”. This project consists of terraforming Mars and moving people from the UTS colonies to it, and doubling down on the rhetoric that the Earth can’t be saved.
Armed with this knowledge, the crew members of the Victory try to keep Kot-nim away from UTS, and the ransom money they were going to receive from the Black Foxes seems less and less important. There’s a lot going on, and a ton of plot twists at this point in the movie, but I won’t reveal them so you can still experience them. I saw some coming, but they were executed well.
The only things I thought could’ve been done better was fleshing out the secondary villain Camilla. She’s the leader of the Space Guards, but wasn’t compelling at all. In fact, she had no personality. So when she catches up with Tae-ho and the crew, and has the “final fight” with Tiger Park, it wasn’t as satisfying as it could’ve been if she was a villain we hated the entire movie. Or at least made us feel some kind of emotion. I also thought Dr. Sullivan’s last scene could’ve been a little more exciting/creative.
Final Thoughts (light spoilers)
I was pretty worried throughout the movie, because I thought the ending was going to be a tear-jerker (V – me too!), but fortunately it didn’t end like Rogue One. The ending highlighted the beauty of found family, and left me feeling warm. Mostly. There’s a shot of bittersweetness running through it, and when you watch it you’ll know why. There was also something surrounding Tae-ho’s daughter Su-ni that was a little confusing if you didn’t think about it carefully (and do a quick google search). But overall, it was a happy ending.
I’d definitely say stream Space Sweepers if you’re looking for an enjoyable movie set in space. People are calling it Korea’s answer to Star Wars, and I get why. There are big differences, but the core element of a determined few trying to take down a dark corporation as big as a…well, empire is the same.
Like every movie, Space Sweepers has its flaws. There are some cliches and some aspects of the movie that were rushed, but the pros outweigh the cons. The special effects were good, and the acting from the main cast was good as well. It also poses some interesting moral questions. So, give it a shot if you’d like to escape this Earth for a few hours.