Gravitational pull

American space movie is well-timed to enjoy box office success in China


China hand: in Gravity Sandra Bullock is saved by a Chinese spaceship

It’s no secret that Hollywood studios – cognisant of China’s burgeoning box office – are going out of their way to feature Chinese characters or scenes. Leading actresses like Fan Bingbing are being cast in films, in some cases only for the China cut (see WiC188), while former classics are being reshot with a China angle, like the latest version of the Karate Kid.

Finding the China angle is tougher when the action takes place in outer space. But Alfonso Cuarón, who directed and co-wrote the script for Gravity, seemed to have come up with a neat solution, making sure that Sandra Bullock – who plays astronaut Ryan Stone in the film – takes refuge in the Chinese space station Tiangong and returns to Earth aboard the spaceship Shenzhou.

During his tour promoting the film in China, Cuarón insisted that the inclusion of the two Chinese spacecraft had nothing to do with winning over the country’s film regulators or pulling in patriotic audiences at Chinese cinemas.

“I know films that incorporate Chinese elements just for the market, but in the case of Gravity, the original storyline was [for Ryan Stone to move] from the Hubble Space Telescope to the ISS, to the Tiangong, because that’s what existed in space at that time… That’s what was in space; and this is way before China became sexy for the Hollywood box office,” Cuarón told Xinhua, saying he penned the script more than four years ago.

Whether or not the move was intentional, it seems to have paid off. Despite going head-to-head with Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Cuarón’s space flick has earned $57.4 million in China since release in mid-November. (Hunger Games grossed $13.5 million in its first week showing on Chinese screens, while Gravity collected $36 million in its first six days.)

In fact, despite making more than $57o million worldwide, Hunger Games’ showing in China looks comparatively tame, with the film not doing as well as many industry insiders anticipated.

One comparison being made is with the Twilight series, which fed off the popularity of Stephenie Meyer’s books on the vampires-and-werewolves saga. But Suzanne Collins’ novels about the teenage archer Katniss Everdeen in Hunger Games proved less of a hit with readers. “Before the Twilight movies were released they already had a huge fan base among Chinese readers,” says Hong Kong newspaper Wen Wei Po. “However, many Chinese are not familiar with the Hunger Games books so just deciphering the chaotic scenes takes a lot of effort, let alone figuring out the reasons behind the ideology of the Games.”

City Express also thinks Gravity scores well with its special effects as it was filmed with 3D in mind, offering lavish shots of exploding debris and astronauts floating off into the infinity of space.

“Thanks to Avatar, the mainstream audience in China is still keen on high-tech sci-fi films that not only tell a straightforward story but also showcase stunning special effects. That’s the strength of Hollywood blockbusters, and also something that domestic productions have yet to provide,” says the Tianjin-based newspaper.

The timing of the film’s release has been helpful too, coinciding with the launch of China’s latest lunar probe Chang’e-3 on Monday. The spacecraft will first orbit the moon, before descending to a landing site and releasing a solar-powered lunar rover (named Jade Rabbit) to conduct geological surveys.

By completing its mission Chang’e-3 will move the country’s space programme a step closer to putting an astronaut on the moon, says the China Daily.

But the arrival of the Chinese spacecraft hasn’t been particularly welcome news in the United States, with Jeff Plescia, who chairs NASA’s Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG), complaining that Chang’e-3’s landing could affect NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), another space module currently conducting experiments on lunar dust.

“The arrival of the Chang’e-3 spacecraft into lunar orbit and then its descent to the surface will result in a significant contamination of the lunar exosphere by the propellant,” Plescia warned.

The statement stirred up netizens in China, who called the US agency hypocritical. “If you go by NASA’s own theory, it appears that the US imperialists are the largest and earliest polluters of the moon,” one internet user wrote.

“[The US is] full of envy, jealousy and hatred,” another fumed.

Such rhetoric offers a sobering contrast with the message of Gravity, where the two countries’ space programmes co-exist somewhat more harmoniously…

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