Perhaps the best Science Fiction film of 2016 was The End of the Lonely Island, an independent Chinese effort (and, yes, we know there isn’t much of an Indie film industry in China!) by first time feature film director Wang Renchao. It was a dense, complex and yet fairly simple film, with a beautifully structured non-linear plot and a deeply character driven story.
Exactly the sort of film you’d expect to garner a Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination — if it weren’t science fiction.
And, despite a thoroughly minimal budget, Wang somehow crafted impressive effects and dazzling layers of digital displays. While he couldn’t afford to make spaceship epic he dreamed of, he did find a way to squeeze in a spaceship at the end of the film.
So you can imagine my surprise when Wang’s latest film appeared in my Inbox three years later.
And not only did he make a new film, but it was that spaceship epic he’s dreamed of — which he could finally achieve thanks to his princely budget of $600,000.
Well, it’s a lot more than he had last time.
Earth is in terrible shape, thanks to a host of environmental problems, and most people have abandoned the surface and live underground.
For over a century, we’ve sent out colony ship after colony ship, trying to reach an Earth-like planet not too far away, but every attempt to reach it has failed.
And what’s worse, the latest ship is the last one that’s planned.
Yes, the Earth desperately needs to find a new home for its people, but the reason most of these missions failed is because dissension sprang up among the crews and they destroyed themselves.
The crew of the Kunlun Mountain — the last colony ship — discover the wreckage of one of the earlier ships. Minutes later three mysterious ships appear from nowhere and try to board them.
Only these ships are of a type they recognize because they were made by the Earth!…
This is a radically different film from The End of the Lonely Island:
Here the story is told in a far simpler way, although it is more complex and opens out the universe in which his films take place. There is a lot going on and a lot of secrets. We are a long way into the film before some of our simplest questions get answered, and the final resolution is completely unexpected.
As with his first film, Wang’s latest effort is beautifully made and looks far more expensive than films with ten times his budget. The space ship sets aren’t all that big, but he has a large cast and a lot is asked of them.
Deep In spends much of its running time outside the ship and the space scenes are impressive, with a variety of different ship designs, several major battles and intense action scenes. I spotted one moment when a maneuvering ship passing close to the “camera” looks rather unreal, and a string of small explosions in space look like tiny cactuses — all hard, solid and spiny — but these are minor glitches of the sort we expect in any digital feature. Your average SyFy network movie looks worse.
Wang also deserves a major shout out for one sequence involving a nearly catastrophic encounter with an exceedingly deadly but previously unknown object. The idea that deep spaces is filled with strange and unimaginable objects is very believable — and the one Wang Renchao imagines is entirely plausible.
More than anything else, I appreciate one of the major themes, that we carry our own faults and flaws with us, even into space, even on the most desperate mission the human race has ever undertaken.
It is a seriously dark thought, yet one we all know in our heart of hearts is true.
All in all, it’s an impressive package: suspense, mystery, secrets, and space battles; crafted with care and an impressive depth of detail; with strong characters and a satisfyingly complex story.
I’ll confess that I love a good spaceship epic and Deep In is one of the best I’ve seen in some time.
But it does leave me wondering: what will Wang Renchao do next time, if he gets an even bigger budget? He’s got two new projects in the works, one a sequel to Deep In, and the other something quite different but I’m sure still extraordinary.
I know I’m looking forward to anything this remarkable young man does!
(My special thanks to Wang Renchao for sharing his film with me!)