Space Sweepers takes place in an all-too-plausible future where the Earth has been rendered almost uninhabitable by pollution and climate change. Those who can afford to have fled to space, with the wealthiest living in luxury on a colony owned by the UTS corporation. A Mars colonization effort is also underway, spearheaded by UTS’s founder and CEO, James Sullivan (Richard Armitage). The less fortunate survive by fighting over space debris to sell as scrap metal.
The premise requires a healthy dose of exposition, and the first 20 minutes of the film occasionally drag as a result. It helps that an exhilarating chase-sequence and stunning shots of the colony’s artificial biosphere break up the rounds of info-dumping. Eventually, the film focuses on the ragtag crew of a scavenging ship called Victory, led by the hard-drinking and unscrupulous Captain Jang (Kim Tae-ri). Her crew includes Tae-ho (Song Joong-ki), a jaded ex-soldier who defected from UTS’s private military; Tiger Park (Jin Seon-kyu), an engineer and former drug kingpin who narrowly escaped execution on Earth; and Bubs, a former military robot in the process of forging her own identity. The plot takes off when Tae-ho discovers a stowaway on board the Victory: an adorable young girl named Kot-nim (Park Ye-rin) who may or may not be a dangerous android in disguise. What ensues is both a surprisingly heartfelt tale of found family and a scathing indictment of classism.
A South Korean production, Space Sweepers features a multinational and multilingual cast. While the main characters are played by Korean actors, auxiliary characters hail from across the globe. The film’s future is hardly an egalitarian utopia—after all, class exploitation and ecological devastation drive the plot—but it’s still encouraging to see a future that represents humanity in all of its diversity. Science fiction often falls into one of two traps when it comes to imagining humanity’s future: thoughtlessly presenting a whitewashed vision of the future by failing to cast people of color or sidestepping questions of diversity by presenting a world where cultural differences and bigotry are magically absent. Space Sweepers does neither. The film acknowledges the very real inequalities that plague our world without perpetuating those inequalities in its casting and message.
Indeed, wealth inequality is the film’s driving antagonistic force, embodied by the CEO James Sullivan. I’m of two minds about the film’s approach to Sullivan. He begins the film with an air of forced benevolence that thinly veils his capitalistic greed. Any hint of nuance rapidly gives way to acts of almost cartoonish villainy. On the one hand, I’m all for exposing and literalizing the evils of the hyper-rich. On the other, the over-the-top nature of his evil deeds obscures the blander and more pervasive evils of systemic oppression. Ultimately, most of Sullivan’s scenes strike me as heavy-handed and unnecessary, reiterating points that the film’s already made in more effective ways. While Armitage is an excellent actor, his talent alone can’t elevate an underdeveloped character. Many of his scenes add runtime without adding sufficient narrative substance.
In terms of social commentary, Space Sweepers works best when it critiques systems rather than individuals. The central characters all defected from or rebelled against unjust institutions years before the events of the film. By the time we meet them, they’ve been beaten down by the economic and legal repercussions of their actions. They’re trapped in the cycle of poverty and must resort to increasingly unethical means in order to survive. Perversely, their choice to distance themselves from unjust institutions has forced them to commit injustices themselves.
Space Sweepers walks these ethical nuances deftly. Without condoning the characters’ actions, it reveals the structural pressures that inform their behavior. The crew of the VIctory don’t make bad choices because they’re bad people; rather, they don’t have good choices available to them. Near the beginning of the film, Tiger asks, “Do you think poverty makes us bad, or that we’re poor because we’re bad?” Space Sweepers soundly answers his question by exposing the debilitating and demoralizing effects of systemic oppression.
To American viewers, it may seem odd for a big-budget action film to take such an explicitly progressive stance—and, indeed, I can think of very few American films of the same scale that dare to take such an overtly political position. But in another sense, Space Sweepers fits into science fiction’s long history of progressivism and social commentary. Director Jo Sung-hee also stands alongside fellow Korean directors who turn a critical lens toward capitalism. Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer in particular comes to mind. While Space Sweepers approaches the issues with a much lighter tone, both films grapple with the intersections of wealth inequality and climate change. Bong’s Oscar-winning Parasite also questions the relationship between poverty and immorality, concurring with Space Sweepers’ assessment that poverty often forces people into unethical behavior.
Space Sweepers takes a progressive approach to gender as well. Almost every character subverts gender stereotypes in some way. Jang embodies many tropes of the roguish pirate captain: a fondness for alcohol and gambling, a cavalier attitude toward sex and romance, a disregard for authority. These tropes are rarely applied to women, and when they are, it’s often the prelude to an arc that reforms her into a “proper” woman. Space Sweepers allows Jang to remain her brash, abrasive, confident self, even as the film reveals her nuances and vulnerabilities. While she, like the rest of the crew, becomes attached to their young stowaway, she exhibits the fewest parental tendencies of the main cast. Tiger, the most stereotypically masculine member of the crew, is the first to warm up to Kot-nim, and he remains the most affectionate and nurturing character toward her throughout the film.
However, the film’s most interesting exploration of gender comes in the form of a non-human character. Bubs, the crew’s resident robot, was built as a weapon. As such, her appearance is bleakly utilitarian, and she speaks in a deep voice. The crew initially refer to Bubs as “he,” but we soon learn that she’s saving up for skin grafts that will make her appear more human and more feminine. In one particularly touching scene, Kot-nim calls Bubs a lady, much to her surprise and delight. While Bubs has a sharp wit and often acts as comic relief, her exploration of gender is treated sensitively and never becomes the butt of a joke. Her storyline is a heartwarming and thoughtful analogy for trans womanhood.
Of course, none of this social commentary would be very effective without the foundation of an engaging story. Fortunately, Space Sweeper delivers on the entertainment factor. While the film gets off to a slow start and ultimately feels longer than necessary, it kept my attention through its compelling characters and impressive visual effects. The action sequences are well-shot and choreographed, with one mid-film chase sequence standing out for its creative use of the set and high emotional stakes. The space station serves as a stunning backdrop for the story, from the saccharine utopia the wealthy residents inhabit to the grungy cyberpunk aesthetics of the station’s underbelly.
The film’s quieter moments also hit the mark, thanks in large part to child actor Park Ye-rin. Kot-nim is the heart of this story, and the audience’s investment depends on her connecting effectively with the Victory’s crew. Park rises to the occasion with a charming and vulnerable performance that would be impressive at any age. By the time the film reaches its climax, we fully understand why these seemingly self-interested characters would risk their lives and livelihoods to protect her.
Kot-nim also ties the personal side of Space Sweepers back into its political message. The film could have easily fallen into simplistic narratives about individual heroism or love triumphing over evil. Instead, it posits community as the center of any successful resistance. Kot-nim serves as a catalyst for fostering community. The crew unites over their newfound sense of family, allowing them to collaborate not only with each other but with fellow members of the working class who they previously viewed as competitors. As in our world, individuals can only achieve so much. Enduring change requires solidarity, organizing, and collective action.
Here again, Space Sweepers contrasts starkly with mainstream American cinema’s obsession with exceptional individuals. Think of Luke Skywalker one-shotting the Death Star, or a select group of heroes repeatedly saving the world in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m not immune to the appeal of these stories—on the contrary, I’m a certified Luke Skywalker stan—but I also crave sci-fi and action films that acknowledge the complex and systemic problems we face. I found that in Space Sweepers.