Billed as South Korea’s first space opera, Space Sweepers opens at the end of this century, when the Earth is a blighted hellscape rapidly on its way to permanent ruin. The wealthiest percentage of the population has fucked off to orbital colonies, Elysium-style, but for the rest of us the only way off-world is cruddy labor cleaning up after the rich, like the ‘sweepers’ who spend their time catching space junk. Of course, the expenses required for keeping a ship afloat and functional means that sweepers can spend their entire lives working off the debt of…their lives.
Space Sweepers follows the crew of the Victory, a ragtag group of losers who make the Guardians of the Galaxy look like the Avengers. They are pilot Tae-ho (Song Joong-ki), Captain Jang (Kim Tae-ri), mechanic Tiger (Jin Seon-kyu), and the robotic Bubs (Yoo Hae-jin). But the gang’s fortunes change when they crack open a ruined ship and discover what appears to be a strange child (Park Ye-rin). The girl plunges the Victory into a wild adventure involving nano-bots, hydrogen bombs, eco-terrorists, and Richard “Thorin Oakenshield” Armitage as the psychotic CEO who rules space paradise.
After a year with next-to-no blockbusters (and with those we got being a pretty disappointing brace), Space Sweepers has rapidly developed a following with its eye-popping visuals, kinetic energy, and international cast.
BF: So I went into this movie with virtually no knowledge besides the basic premise, the fact that Sook-hee from The Handmaiden was in it as some kind of space pirate, and knowing that you really dug it. Now, Sook-hee from The Handmaiden in space was more than enough to get me on board, but from the moment we plunged into the stylish doomsday of this world, I was fully dialed in to what the movie was projecting. At 2.5 hours in length, Space Sweepers is a LOT of movie, but even with that epic scope it feels like it is sprinting through an entire TV season’s worth of story. It’s absolutely berserk, and I was cackling through pretty much all of it. So what about you, man? How did Space Sweepers end up on your radar, and what are your general thoughts?
BA: Fellow genre nerd and horror critic Scott Weinberg is who I first saw beating this film’s drum early in the year, and after seriously digging 2019’s The Wandering Earth, and given 2020’s blockbuster drought, I was already on the lookout for more overseas spectacle. After Scott threw a trailer across the timeline (which ably showcases the aforementioned Victory crew and some dope-looking action — but a total lack of Richard Armitage, so that was a cool surprise), I made sure Space Sweepers was on my calendar, so to speak. One of the things that most immediately caught my attention was something I’m sure we’ll spend a bit of time hashing out: its very deliberate genre influences, particularly in the form of ’90s anime and turn-of-the-century American TV. There’s a few things that unavoidably jump to mind when you see “found family of screw-ups on a spaceship find a strange girl in a container,” ya know?
BF: You speak of course of the glorious successful-failure that is Firefly, though we’ll go ahead and set that to the side given all of the everything going on with Whedon at the moment. ‘Losers in space’ is a surprisingly populous subgenre, and Space Sweepers certainly wears those influences on its sleeve. The other one that sprang to mind early was The Fifth Element, with its emphasis on blue collar schmucks scraping by in an insane future-setting before stumbling into heroism…after finding a strange girl in a container.
Huh. Kinda can’t help but notice a pattern.
Anyway! The other big presager that you can’t really help but note in any description of Space Sweepers is of course Cowboy Bebop, the classic anime series from 1998 (and the very first anime to air on Adult Swim when that programming block launched in 2001). Bebop was many an American’s (and here I’ll raise my hand) first foray into anime and it’s hard to make any show or movie about freelance dirtbags working a crummy job in a beat-up future without in some way invoking the good ship Bebop and its crew. Of cowboys.
I’m well aware that there’s a whole host of space-faring anime/manga adding flavor to this particular concoction, but I gotta bleed ignorance for any beyond Bebop. So what are some of the other ingredients getting mixed in here? And for owing so much to its forebearers, how does Space Sweepers establish its own identity.
BA: Immediately and exuberantly, but with just enough time to breathe in between. Which is as good a crystallization of “Shit that Space Sweepers does right” as I can come up with at the moment. Not to give too much away, but after dumping viewers on a ruined end-of-this-century Earth, we’re first introduced to Tae-ho not piloting a ship, but trading away his shoes for a chance to identify a Jane Doe. It’s an instantly-relatable grounding in a buck-wild setting that then catapults us into the crew of the Victory intercepting a salvage to the chagrin of the other titular Space Sweepers attempting to get their slice. Having our “heroes” clawing to claim what amounts to janitorial work is a great “zig” to the “zag” of other space crews being outlaw treasure hunters or rebels or even kinda-shitty bounty hunters.
That’s part of what gives this joint a groovy modern energy that’s hard to describe without just referencing whole swaths of the movie (like how most space sweepers have harpoon guns, but the Victory has a robot who throws harpoons, because that’s way cooler, and that robot has a gender identity subplot, because why the fuck not?), but there’s a barely-leashed chaos. The film is deliberately multi-national in its depiction of the future (instant translation earpieces for everyone!), so while our heroes are largely speaking Korean, dozens of other dialects — including English — require some light code switching and a careful eye on the subtitles. Which is good, because Space Sweepers throws a lot of stuff at the viewer and expects them to keep up, since all that stuff is getting paid off later on.
This is going to seem like a tangent, but that brings me to one of the other anime parallels here. While Cowboy Bebop was owning the Adult Swim anime block, daytime Cartoon Network viewers could catch Toonami running episodes of Outlaw Star. Aside from literally featuring A Strange Girl in a Box (robot, this time), Outlaw Star is basically Anime: the Anime. Space battles, cat girls, samurai warrior ladies, bounty hunters, precocious kids, even a hot springs episode — Outlaw Star is the “yes, and” of anime, to the point of the main hero using literal magic bullets (as in, his gun is a “caster” that fires magic spells made from special shells) to fight space pirates when he’s not punching them (yes, literally punching them) with his spaceship.
Which — to get us back on course — is the same kind of moxie that I love about Space Sweepers. It’s one thing to have enough ideas for several whole movies and decide “fuck it, we’ll do ’em all,” and another thing to actually pull it off. But Sweepers plays fair, and while it may throw a lot of dominos at you, it makes sure to knock them all down in style.
BF: So it’s in space, but there’s a gun that fires magic bullets? And cat-girls, you say? *makes note for next time bored and/or lonely*
Getting back to the movie at hand! You make a great point about Sweepers playing fair, actually paying off all the various elements and ideas it introduces. And it’s important to note that it pays off ALL of those elements. This is a complete film that leaves nothing on the table for the sake of any theoretical larger media franchise. For as much as I love a good saga or series, there is a special kind of exhilaration that kicks in after the midway point when you remember, right, this movie isn’t teeing up narrative points to be developed and resolved in some sequel down the line. This story is getting told FULLY. NOW. And somehow that very tightness makes Sweepers feel that much more epic, like its scope and its world have so much more weight than we expect from the big blockbusters that Hollywood cranks out these days, which can’t help but feel like installment pieces in a larger thing that might never get finished.
It’s weird to describe a film having an effective set-up/payoff system like it’s some kind of revelatory thing, but these are the sort of endlessly satisfying narrative structures that seem increasingly to fall by the wayside in favor of bloated budgets and stories that never actually resolve or really go anywhere, so Sweepers ‘just’ nailing wildly effective mainstream pop storytelling does feel somewhat revelatory.
Not that I would mind there being more. Tae-ho, Jang, Tiger, and Robot Bubs are a terrific crew of space scoundrels and if this creative team wanted to get together every few years to put together another zippy adventure, I’d be fully on board. Provided, of course, that they continue to work in unhinged set-pieces like Bubs web-slinging through a hoard of killer drones while Jang fires a machine gun from the back of a spaceship as if this were the Mad Max/Spider-Man crossover that I fantasize about when I am bored and/or lonely.
But there’s one big element we haven’t really dug into yet, and that is Richard Armitage as the film’s villain. That’s right, Thorin Oakenshield. The Red Dragon. He struck back on Strike Back (one assumes). I’m just going to sit right back and let you extoll a bit on…all the stuff that he’s got going on in this movie.
BA: The only thing better than Surprise Richard Armitage is Surprise Richard Armitage who 100% knows he’s playing an anime villain. I don’t know if it was his call to start at “Thorin With Dragon Sickness” / 10, or if he was just real glad to hear the note, because he spends all of five minutes as James Sullivan pretending not to be a monster in a skin suit before treating the rest of the film like a scenery buffet. On the one hand, making your central baddie a Steve Jobs stand-in by way of Mr. Hyde is pretty broad (even for this sort of film), but on the other hand, living through the past few years has given me little patience for subtlety.
I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds on this, but for all that Sullivan is every bit the Evil Corporate CEO that you’d expect from what it says on the tin, the film manages to make him even more of a despicably exploitive dick-face. “No no, it’s not enough that he’s the CEO of Evil-er Buy’N Large and has a floating habitat utopia he keeps only for the super rich even as he exploits the planet, let’s make him worse.” It’s enough that I kinda regret not having more facetime between him and the rest of the heroes, especially given that he practically gives a “Well, if it isn’t the consequences of my own actions” speech reading their files.
BF: I would describe the relative paucity of facetime between our villain and our heroes as maybe one of the film’s bum notes. There’s a confrontation with a henchwoman that closes with a gruesome, hysterically funny callback and part of me wishes the script had been rejiggered to give Armitage that comeuppance instead. Ah well.
It would be remiss of us to get through this whole conversation and not take a second to highlight the great work of the ensemble in selling us on not only the reality of their gonzo Futurama-ian world, but also on their characters being actual complex human beings within that world. That’s a tough needle to thread, especially given how confrontationally unappealing the crew of the Victory is introduced to us as being. These are scum-bums that other scum-bums find repellant, and yet even in those early goings there’s just something gosh-darn lovable about these twits as they fail to be as cold-blooded as they all wish to be.
Special attention must be paid to Kim Tae-ri as Captain Jang. Kim did absolutely HEROIC work in Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, there playing a very sincere and pliable character. By contrast, Captain Jang is a hard-drinking burnt out ruin who glowers at the world from behind aviators and barely has the energy to be put out by the shit hand life has dealt her. Kim not only crushes the “Han Solo but meaner” vibe needed for those early goings, but also the steady thawing of her character’s reserve, and when she finally swaggers into full-on action hero mode in the final stretch, Kim slips into that skin as easy as breathing. What a delight.
Alright man, we’ve gone very long on this movie, so why don’t you give us your final thoughts on Space Sweepers and why folks should make the time for this particular piece of extravagant weirdness?
BA: Uh. . . because it’s super dope? As in, so dope that even the precocious cute kid is good?
In all seriousness, Space Sweepers sweats and bleeds the kind of humanism that I find so appealing in a space opera, capturing both a better and a worse “time” than the present, even while feeling “of its time,” and still suggesting that our species might have still have the time to sort our shit out. For all that people as a collective pretty much always suck, I’ll never tire of a sci-fi yarn that believes enough “persons” putting their thumb on the scale when it counts can make a real difference. Captain Jang and the rest of the crew get to embody this pendulum swing as young Kot-nim recognizes their value (the kid immediately seeing Bubs for exactly what she is rules so hard) — both in her drawings of and interactions with them, and in how her actions coalesce the Victory crew into a family worth fighting for.
To bring this thing full circle, if your movie hangs on an empathy-generating jack-in-the-box being one of the main characters, you best not fuck that up. And it’s all too easy to fuck up kids in big movies, but Space Sweepers sinks that shot without even touching the rim.
Also, did I mention that there are numerous action beats where a robot is riding a spaceship and throwing space harpoons at other spaceships in space?
BF: Come to think of it, it might have come up a time or two.
Look, any movie that is this loudly itself is going to put off a percentage of the audience. Look at how widely rejected something like Jupiter Ascending was when it first dropped before getting a reappraisal when its audience found it.
The go-for-broke energy and wild tonal shifts of Space Sweepers sure suggests that it could be similarly divisive. But even if the film is not wholly successful in every thing it tries to do, that deeply felt humanism you describe unites all its discordant tones and story elements into a shared whole. For as convoluted and densely packed as the film’s plotting is, it ultimately boils down to the simple (but at times impossible) choice to put someone else’s needs above your own, choosing love and hope over pragmatic despair.
So if you want a film to inspire you about all the potential the human race still has, or if you just want to watch a robot in space blow up spaceships with a space harpoon whilst in space, then plunk yourself down and enjoy some Space Sweepers.