Space Sweepers: Capitalism, Found Family, and Trans Robots!

Space Sweepers is about a working class found family. It’s anti-capitalist. It’s environmentalist. It's queer. It's got heart. What's not to like?

Space Sweepers: Capitalism, Found Family, and Trans Robots!

In my opinion, the last decade has been a golden age for science fiction and fantasy literature. (Obviously, subject to your tastes and opinion.)

There are so many stories pushing the boundaries of what these genres can be.

Of course, I’m not saying we shouldn’t celebrate classics. I don’t think there’s a point in comparing. As humans, the work we create always reflects the era we live in, usually looking to the past for answers and wisdom, and, often in science fiction and fantasy, aggregating that with dreams of alternate realities or futures.

Storytellers today are in conversation with what came before.

It’s a living and breathing relationship.

(Also why does everything have to be a competition? Art is subjective, right? I say, let’s stop judging other peoples’ GOATs.)

So why is this era my sci-fi/fantasy golden age?

One thing that stands out in modernity is how many more people have opportunities to tell their stories.

As I said, our work is often rooted in our own experiences. Our imaginations are derived from how we move about and understand the world.

Naturally, BIPOC, queer folks, disabled people, and creators of other marginalized identities are drawing from their respective experiences to bring fresh perspectives and adding new dimensions to these genres.

Furthermore, the world is becoming a smaller place as works from around the globe become more easily accessible.

We see this same exchange of ideas and culture across borders. It's easier than ever to access and appreciate groundbreaking novels from Nigeria, TV shows from Korea, films from Brazil... an ever-growing library of humanity's creations. (From a Western-centric perspective.)

Stories don't just show how diverse and different we are though, oftentimes, they also show how similar the human experience is.

Science fiction is often a vehicle for exploring our humanity. The more perspectives we add into the mix, the richer our trove of stories become.

Oh, and one other thing, when we consider "ages," I think it's important to consider not just the best of the best, but works that might not end up in the history books.

What makes this a golden age in my book is the quality of works outside of the cream of the crop.

All that to get to the reason I’m writing this: I loved Space Sweepers!

Space Sweepers is a South Korean movie released on Netflix this past February.

According to Wikipedia, it’s “regarded as the first Korean space blockbuster.”

It's a story about a rag-tag crew, scavenging for space scraps to pay their various debts and bills to barely scrape by...

It’s also an absolute delight!

It checks off many of the points I outlined above. It's a foreign film that hits many familiar narrative beats while adding its own distinct flair. Is this a work that will make an impact on our cultural consciousness long-term? Maybe not. It seems to have a pretty niche audience—at least in the West.

With that said, it's one of my favorite films so far this year. Here's why you should check it out, if you haven't already!

Space Sweepers Official Trailer

Space Sweepers has heart. Loads of it. (Have some tissues ready!)

The movie is a little over two hours, which is pretty standard. Length is never really an issue for me. My opinion? The right amount of time is the time necessary to tell the story and do it justice. There are hour and a half long movies that draaaaaag. And three and a half hour movies that fly by.

For the most part, Space Sweepers sped along. After all, a lot happens!

This is not just a movie heavy on plot though. The characters are the heart and soul of this movie. Whereas some might consider the story well-trodden space opera territory, the characters are fleshed out beyond their archetypes.

When we're first introduced to the crew, they are relatively one-dimensional, as is often the case with large casts. The cocky leader. The muscle with a heart of gold. The emotionally distant protagonist who needs to learn to trust and love again. A snarky robot. And so on. But there's more to them than meets the eye.

Space Sweepers Crew

The film really sings when these characters interact with each other, exploring the bonds that bind them together.

As a whole, the filmmakers did a great job creating well rounded characters with well-defined motivations and arcs (a monumental task for ensemble casts as Suicide Squad can attest to).

Found family narratives can feel empty if characters are unlikable or if the relationships between them feel unconvincing. With Space Sweepers...

Well, let's just say that there were tears during that third act.

This film demonstrated a better grasp of the human condition under late stage capitalism than most Hollywood blockbusters.

“Do you think poverty makes us bad, or that we’re poor because we’re bad?” - Tae-ho

As I mentioned, stories are a reflection of the time they're created.

We're currently living through a tumultuous time. Capitalism has ravaged the planet so that humans are guaranteed to face an existential crisis in the coming years unless we change our ways, drastically. As if that's not all, this system of exploitation has led to such wealth inequality that the return of the guillotine is threatening to come back next season along with the dreaded return of early '00s fashion. (Please, no, don't bring back low-rise jeans... In all seriousness, wear whatever makes you happy!)

Of course, the focus of the movie is on the eponymous space sweepers.

(As an aside, I like how we don’t delve long in the world of the rich people. Sometimes, films like to bathe too long in the utopian aspects of the dystopia as if the filmmakers want to critique capitalism, but can’t help revealing how much they’d like to live comfortably as one of the rich and privileged in those worlds.)

A motley crew, doing what they can to survive, isn't anything new. Firefly. Guardians of the Galaxy. I'm sure you could name a handful off the top of your head.

However, being explicit about classicism is rare when it comes to western properties. Poverty is more often a "test" for heroes, a barrier to overcome. Occasionally, they choose to be poor as a virtue. Regardless, they narrative always makes clear that they are "special," not like the other poor people in the universe, waiting to be saved.

Seriously, where's the class solidarity?

In any other instance, it would be "heavy-handed" to illustrate a real social problem like how poverty is an artificial condition created by the wealthy, but since it's so rare in mainstream media, I find Space Sweepers absolutely novel and refreshing in this regard.

People need to understand that poverty isn't a result of laziness. No amount of hard work can elevate a person when the system was created to keep people poor and in debt.

And the culprit isn't some shadowy figure. No, Occam's razor, y'all. The problem is rich people.

There's also a subtle dig at the hegemony of the English language as it's mostly used by the oppressors while we get a diverse selection of non-English speakers on the side of the resistance.

Trans allegory!

This isn’t new in science fiction. After all, we got the Matrix, right?

However, this one shouldn’t go over anyone’s heads. Bubs is a trans robot! Bubs' journey is one that is as straightforward as can be.

(I've only read the first Murderbot book, All System's Red, so far, but Bubs definitely had some Murderbot energy.)

Bubs in Space Sweepers

I won't spoil much more, but trust me when I say that Bubs often steals the spotlight.

I'm so disappointed by Hollywood's persistent heteronormativity these days that this film, by comparison, is pure queer joy. (It's a low bar, I know.) Sadly, when it comes to "big-budget action adventure movies," this is as explicitly queer as it gets in 2021.

So yeah, make sure you watch Space Sweepers! It's a story that's familiar, very much in conversation with what came before. It brings life to character archetypes. The film has a unique cultural flair that also resonates with audiences around the globe. (Who doesn't want to smash capitalism at this point?)

And it's fun!

Dare I say it? I’d rather have five of these movies for every random Hollywood sequel no one asked for.