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Pre-Screening Discussion

The conceptual questions outlined above are complex and intended to help instructors introduce the film and lead class discussion after students have watched the film. In simplified form, they can also serve as pre-screening discussion questions that prime students to watch the film analytically:

  1. What is your understanding of propaganda and soft power? What role do films and television shows play in promoting certain world views?
  2. What do you expect from a science fiction film? How can science fiction films help us think about the future? About our relationship to technology and the environment?
  3. Why is apocalypse/disaster both scary and exciting to watch? This is an ethically thorny question, since audiences may enjoy the spectacle of destruction, but apocalypse can be productive because it allows us also to think about futures in new ways, to imagine new notions of community that are refreshingly different from the world we live in.
  4. A broken family subplot is a cliché in disaster movies. Why pair the breakdown of a nuclear family with a global catastrophe?
  5. How are nations represented in cinema? For example, in a film about American characters saving the world, what kinds of iconography is used to represent the United States and American values?
  6. What notions of global community are you familiar with? In what contexts do nations come together to accomplish a goal?
  7. What media that deals with the end of the world have you consumed? What threatens life on earth and how is the crisis resolved? What does a postapocalyptic world look like?


After a brief discussion, students will be ready to watch the film critically. Noticing details that pertain to the questions above as they watch will further equip them to analyze the film in a post-screening discussion and any related writing assignments. Some things to watch for:

  • News broadcasts and narration as world building/exposition
  • Government communications & representations of state authority
  • National and international iconography
  • Mentions of home and family
  • Spaces that are/were homes (underground cities/ruins & memories)
  • Technology as friend and foe
  • Moments of despair and hope (how do we transition from one to the other?)

How to Write about Film: Wandering Earth

The first step to writing (or talking) analytically about a film is watching the film attentively. The questions in the previous section are intended to focus students’ attention on “big ideas” that the film engages with, but it’s also important for students to notice details that pertain to these larger problematics. Rather than approaching a film with preconceived notions of what it will mean, students should watch (and later, write) critically, aware of their assumptions and attentive to moments that deviate from what they might expect.

David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephens’ Writing Analytically is an excellent textbook resource for writing about film and informs the approaches and exercises in this section. Though the authors don’t focus on film, the book works through multiple examples of visual analysis and provides clear, helpful advice for writing. My own craft improves every time I teach with it. The approach and exercises presented here are inspired by years of teaching with this book. One of the book’s most helpful distillations of what is means to think analytically is the simple framing: “Although X appears to account for Z, Y accounts for it better” (154). This approach adds tension to the argumentation, allowing students to develop a nuanced argument that can account for contradictions and anomalies in the film.

For example, if a student is interested in propaganda, they might write an essay that interprets the film as an ideological endorsement of Chinese governmental polices that positions China as a technological power player and future global leader. It’s not hard to make that case, but this essay will not be very interesting as a piece of analysis. We might add tension to this argument by considering how the film represents China’s future by reference to its present and its past, both critically and nostalgically. Rather than thinking about the film in terms of “either/or,” it’s most productive to consider such contradictory meanings in tension with each other. Tweaking the approach form Writing Analytically, we might say, “Although Wandering Earth seems to be about the future, the future presented in the film is mediated by both a nostalgic and critical look back at China’s past and present.” Let’s see how we might analyze key scenes from the film in detail to make this case!

The most effective way to get to a more complex argument is to shift from “what” (content) questions to “how” (form) questions. Writing about film works most effectively when visual analysis supports an original argument about film form. Writing about film form demands attentive, analytical viewing and facility with film terminology. First, let’s deal with attentive, analytical viewing. Close attention to specific moments in the film allows students to tease out tensions and complexities rather than regurgitate generalizations. It’s very unlikely that a film congeals exactly as expected and careful viewing will reward us with curious anomalies ripe for analysis. The goal is to observe details and figure how they work together in the film to make meaning. Writing Analytically calls the practice of organizing evidence into patterns and contrasts “The Method.” Collecting “data points” and thinking about how they relate to each other (as patterns or contrasts), allows students to “induce” what the film means. Inductive reasoning relies on details to develop a general argument (deductive reasoning begins with a general argument). Shifting from deductive to inductive reasoning when writing about a film will help students avoid producing argumentation that is repetitive and predictable. If students begin with an obvious claim, “Wandering Earth is a propagandistic story about China’s future role in the world,” they can come up with a relatively straightforward and boring essay that proves this claim multiple times. In this situation, we can push students to think about how China’s future is imagined in relation to its past.

In the following section, we will work through the steps of formulating an argument about Wandering Earth’s deft and political use of nostalgia. First, we will consider several exercises that can help students organize their observations about the film and begin developing arguments. Each exercise can be performed in class as a group activity or assigned as homework. In either case, I have found it helpful for students to maintain an online text document in which they keep a record of notes pertaining to each exercise. As the student’s thinking about the film evolves, this “journal” maintains a record of their work and helps them scaffold more complex arguments, and ultimately, essays. While throughout this module, I will refer to the final product of film analysis as an “essay,” it’s important to note that the exercises and analytical approaches presented here are foundational to multiple modes of intellectual expression. Producing engaging podcast episodes, videos, presentations, posters, etc. about a film relies also on watching critically and thinking analytically.

Key film terms will be marked in bold—a glossary linked here (insert link) offers definitions of these terms with screenshots and clips from that illustrate them. The glossary is not exhaustive, but should be adequate for an introductory class. A more exhaustive list of film terms can be readily found on Yale’s Film Analysis website. David Bordwell’s Film Art is a classic textbook that defines terms and provides excellent examples of visual analysis.

  1. The analytical process begins before we watch the film!

The module includes a list of questions to consider with students before they watch the film. Instead of attending to each question exhaustively, I suggest that teachers choose questions based on their syllabus. Which questions resonate with themes you’ve already covered? Does the film present a complimentary or opposing (or both) viewpoint to materials that you’ve already covered? It’s likely that your class does not concern East Asian history, but there are many themes in Wandering Earth that intersect with issues pertinent to life in contemporary America.

Have you screened nostalgic films or discussed the politics of nostalgia (e.g., MAGA)? Have you discussed postapocalyptic media and the relationship between the future it imagines and our present (there are a lot of recent examples of such media!)? How do these genres complicate the relationship between the past, future, and present? What kind of future nation or society is imagined and what visions of the past are these future built upon?

Such an in-class discussion will allow students to approach the film with some personal/intellectual investment in its main issues. Upon watching, they can discover continuities between the material you’ve already covered and a new, initially unfamiliar, film.

  1. The analytical process continues as we watch the film!

For our purposes, watching a film consists of two things: the film itself and the experience of viewing the film. Watching the film itself analytically means students should pay attention to the film form, the how. The how includes both visual elements and narrative structure. When students think a detail is significant, they should note it down. For example, if we are interested in the role of the news media, we want to take note of scenes that represent reporters, newspapers, cameras, televisions, etc. What details do we notice? How do these scenes fit into the film? How do they read against each other?

Ask students to take note of four or five scenes that catch their attention. What stands out as significant? What doesn’t make sense? An anomaly can be very productive for analysis, because it invites us to think more deeply about what is going on in the film. Students should make note of the scene’s context and jot down some details that they notice.

The environment in which we watch the film is also important, especially since all three films considered in our modules are box office hits that are now accessible in the US mainly as streaming titles. It’s not always possible to watch a film together in a cinematic screening. Nevertheless, I encourage in-class film screenings because they offer a unique, communal experience of a film. The audience in a cinema is rarely entirely silent. We emote, sometimes verbally, as we watch a film. A film screening is not only a great way to focus attention on the film, but also a way of “sensing” the audience response to the film and feeling oneself as part of that audience. Wandering Earth is a thrilling, tense film that many, many people watched in the cinema. What kind of knowledge can students glean by paying attention to the “vibe” in the room? By contrast, if students watch alone, how do they experience the film? Where can they turn to validate/express their emotions and reactions to the film? When does their attention drift? Considering these questions might not always explicitly contribute to writing an essay, but it should get students thinking about how the circumstances of watching a film might alter their relationship to the piece of media they are consuming.

  1. After watching, students should return to their notes and begin “unpacking” the moments in the film they consider to be intriguing.

It’s ok if it’s not initially entirely clear why a given moment is striking. Conversely, it’s important not to write off a moment because it’s “obviously” significant. To figure out precisely what is happening in a given sequence, we need to return to it and watch it again, carefully. What makes this moment significant? How does it relate to the rest of the film? Does it stand out because it clashes with what we have seen, is it an amplification of something that occurred in an earlier moment?

To begin, students can choose two to three moments in the film from their notes. To watch these scenes again, they will need access to the film, ideally, the entire film. If that is not possible, you can provide students with a selection of clips from the film that they can choose from.

Writing Analytically suggests a “10 on 1” approach (103-108) that asks students to choose one example from the “whole” (in this case, a single scene from the film) that is representative of the argument they are beginning to formulate. As the authors note, “10” is an arbitrary figure that simply denotes multiple observations about a single example (103).

In a film class, students would be asked to conduct a shot by shot “sequence analysis” of the significant scene. Such an assignment, the bedrock of film analysis, calls for students to identify each shot, describing its length, mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing, sound, and what happens in the shot. This can be a time-consuming exercise, because the average shot length in a contemporary film is only a few seconds. The benefit of recording this information about each shot, however, is that students will notice many details. The sheer amount of time necessary to complete a sequence analysis (potentially hours of work for minutes of film) is a testament to the amount of information that is jam packed into a film. Watching closely focuses attention on the way the film is put together.

For a more approachable exercise for beginners, let’s combine some aspects of sequence analysis and the “10 on 1” approach to analyze a sequence that takes place when the film’s earthbound protagonists reach the ruins of Shanghai.

CLIP @ 35:50 to 38:50


  • Shot of a map of China with a red line marking the heroes’ journey (common in adventure films, famously in Indiana Jones), shots of their vehicles are superimposed onto the map
  • Extreme long shot of vehicles approaching Shanghai, the city sky line faintly visible on the horizon
  • Medium, high angle shot of characters sitting in the vehicle shot through the windshield (stickers of Chinese and United Earth Government flag visible on the left of the windshield)
  • A reflection of the city ruins becomes visible on the windshield of the vehicle
  • Establishing shot of Shanghai, the city’s name visible on left side of the screen, reveals the city ruins that they are looking at, Pearl of the Orient visible
  • High angle shot from behind the characters as they look onto Shanghai frozen in ice
  • Computer generated “drone shot” (meaning this is not literally a drone shot, since the entire sequence was made using CGI) that explores the top of the ice sheet, with a drone visible in the foreground
  • Over-the-shoulder shot of a screen that shows what the drone above is filming
  • Bird’s eye view shot with drone visible in foreground and other iconic Shanghai skyscrapers emerging from the ice in the background, ravine splits the city
  • High contrast extreme long shot of vehicles entering the ravine that leads into the city
  • Medium close-ups of Liu Qi and Duoduo looking off screen to the right, presumably through the vehicle’s window
  • Long shot of vehicle passing under derelict street signs
  • High angle medium close-up of the team member looking up at the ruins of Shanghai through the windshield
  • Over the shoulder” shot from behind one of the seats inside the vehicle looking through the windshield onto the ruins of the city (flags still visible in windshield)
  • Long shot of a street with ruined buildings visible, including a Lanzhou Ramen shop as it would be visible from the eye level of characters sitting in the vehicle
  • Han Zi’eng narrates memories of his life in Shanghai to the characters sitting in the vehicle as they ride through the city (sometimes off screen audio)
  • Long shots of several objects frozen in ice, including bus, ship hull, and Olympics stadium

The list of “observations” above does not include all of the shots in this three minute sequence (there are ), but it does give us a sense of the sequence’s complex presentation of the former metropolis.

Having gathered these observations, students should notice patterns and contrasts that appear in the scene. For example:

  • Recurring high angle shots that produce a sense of awe at the city’s ruins, encased in ice as tall as its famous skyscrapers
  • Multiple appearances of the Pearl of the Orient landmark, iconic of Shanghai
  • Multiple shots of and through the windshield of the vehicle
  • Multiple medium close-ups of characters looking up at the city around them
  • Han Zi’eng is the only character who is not awed, but rather nostalgic and sad as he looks onto the city, he is the only one who knows what it looked like before
  • In addition to many shots monumental, iconic buildings and objects (like skyscrapers and the giant ship) there are a couple more prosaic shots of lower rise buildings and school bus
  • In the reminiscences, there is a contrast between the simplicity of Han’s daily life and the greed he describes as a feature of the old world

The next exercise calls for students to pick several of the most significant observations they have made and keep pushing deeper. For example, let’s focus on the following points and consider how they represent Shanghai.

  • Medium, high angle shot of characters sitting in the vehicle shot through the windshield (stickers of Chinese and United Earth Government flag visible on the left of the windshield)—a reflection of the city ruins becomes visible on the windshield of the vehicle
    • Looking up at an awe-inspiring sight from the safety of a vehicle, the windshield functions as a “screen” not unlike the one that we are watching the film on
    • Shanghai appears first as a reflection, not the actual city, feels less real, but also builds tension for the moment when we do see the city in the establishing shot that follows
    • The Chinese flag next to the United Earth Government flag that is visible in the windshield is a mark of cosmopolitanism in the present, while Shanghai is China’s most cosmopolitan city in the past (of the film)
  • Computer generated “drone shot” (meaning this is not literally a drone shot, since the entire sequence was made using CGI) that explores the top of the ice sheet, with a drone visible in the foreground
    • The previous shots impressed with their awe, dwarfing the human characters, this shot impresses with computer generated graphics, allowing us to (safely) see beyond what a human can see
    • Like the windshield, the drone’s video signal receiver is an auxiliary screen
    • Drones are also strongly associated with military hardware, and though there is no “army” per se, the team that is travelling through Shanghai is equipped with machine guns, so there is a sense of military prowess here too
  • Han Zi’eng narrates memories of his life in Shanghai to the characters sitting in the vehicle as they ride through the city (sometimes off-screen audio)
    • The past is corrupted by greed and money (i.e., he describes China’s contemporary social inequalities and anxieties)
      • This version of Shanghai is represented in the skyscrapers
    • The past is also a time of simple pleasures, like his wife’s noodles and fast food (as represented by the Lanzhou Noodle shop)
      • The “street level” shots give a sense of a more intimate city
    • Han appears lost in thought (memories) while the other characters are shown behind him looking through the window in awe—who has a sense of loss?

This is a lot of information. How can we narrow it down and focus in on an argument? At this point, drafting an analytical description of the scene is a good exercise. When students use the details that they have observed and organized to write a description of what happens in the scene, they are already writing analytically.

Analytical Description

When the convoy transporting a crucial device needed to repair an Earth Engine reaches Shanghai, the film indulges viewers with awe inspiring shots of a frozen, ruined city. On one hand, this sequence is an impressive showcase of special effects. Exploring the ruins of the once great metropolis is undoubtedly a visual thrill. The shot of a map that begins the sequence alerts Chinese viewers (and viewers familiar with Chinese geography) that we are about to explore future Shanghai. The initial extreme long shot of the convoy as it approaches the city and the medium shots of characters through the windshield of the car, however, defer the spectacular visual experience of this great city frozen in ice. By first showing the city as it appears in a reflection, the film underscores the city’s ruined state. It is a mere mirage of the former metropolis. This composition also turns the windshield itself into a screen, suggesting that there is a parity between the film’s audience, looking on at awe at the theatrical screen, and the characters in the vehicle, likewise looking on at awe through the windshield. The delayed establishing shot that formally announces that we’ve arrived in Shanghai, in turn, wows with its scale. A subsequent computer generated “drone shot” allows both the film’s viewers and the characters to zoom around the top of the frozen city, safely taking in the spectacular sight with the help of technology.

While the city’s ruination is visually stunning, the film also continually underscores the stark emotional stakes of this visit. Younger characters look out the window, awed by a bygone world they barely knew before going underground. The grandfather, once a resident of the city, provides a scathing critique of the greedy culture that prevailed when he lived in the city. Presumably, the impressive but now ruined skyscrapers are a testament to this capitalist past. His narration takes a warm, nostalgic turn, however, when he references favorite homemade meals in a cozy description that contrasts sharply with the frozen world outside. While medium close-ups of young characters looking up at the city underscore that Shanghai is a sight to behold, both in its current state and as a reminder of a very different past, a similar shot of the grandfather strikes a different tone. He isn’t looking at the city at, but rather lost in his memories. Here the audience might also identify with his “perspective,” since Chinese viewers are certainly imagining how present Shanghai (the grandfather’s memory) contrasts with the remnants of the city they are seeing.

Unlike Beijing, which was shown only in its contemporary state as an underground city and over ground infrastructural installation, Shanghai is literally frozen in time, an artefact of a bygone world. The city’s rich history as a cosmopolitan “Paris of the East” seems wholly irrelevant in this new world. Impressive skyscrapers remind viewers that the metropolis was a global economic hub whose growth fueled and echoed China’s rise as a powerful nation, but the grandfather’s narration rejects the pursuit of money as an outdated, practically unethical concern. This is a stark reimagining of China’s contemporary history. The Shanghai skyline has been a testament and monument to the country’s economic rise, but here, the city is a tomb. Shanghai, once a beacon of China’s future, is represented here as a decadent and dead city, a characterization that echoes critiques of Shanghai culture in post-1949 China. The New China is rooted firmly in Beijing, which bustles with constructive action both under and above ground. Somehow, China’s postapocalyptic future has returned to values that were lauded by the communist state before the country’s embrace of capitalism.

How can this paragraph be enriched with details and close analysis? Consider:

  • What is the role of spectacle here? Note that the technology necessary to make this film and create this sequence is available to Chinese filmmakers because of the economic system that Han critiques—and that these spectacular effects are intended to wow audiences and make money!
  • How is the past accessed? How does narration about the past set to scenes of frozen devastation in the present differ from a flashback? How do the characters relate to the past?
  • What happens when the present is shown to us as a ruin? Where do ideas for the future come from if the present is literally washed away?

4. Once an argument begins emerging from these details, students can get to the work of producing a compelling and original “evolving” argument (per Writing Analytically).

At what other points in the film do characters dwell on the past? To what ends? What sorts of things are they thinking about? Consider, for example, the two astronaut protagonists when they reminisce about life on Earth? A thorough essay does not have to answer every question presented in the materials above. In fact, it should not digress into every possible interpretation of a scene. Instead, each successive step in the writing process should help the writer narrow in on a precise argument. We started with the general claim that: “Although The Wandering Earth seems to be about the future, the future presented in the film is mediated by both a nostalgic and critical look back at China’s past and present.”

We might now narrow in on: “The Wandering Earth’s leap into the future allows the film to reevaluate contemporary China, presenting one of its most culturally and economically vibrant cities as a ruin. By visually indulging in Shanghai’s violent destruction, the film radically rejects China’s contemporary socioeconomic system in favor of a future that echoes the socialist values of the country’s socialist past.”

What is quite extraordinary is that the film manages to evoke the socialist past, often considered earthy and underdeveloped, in a very high-tech future, resurrecting the promises of this past in the ruins of the present. To further develop this claim, we might turn to the film’s presentation of Beijing (after all, the heart of the nation), contrasting the presentation of that urban space with the visit in Shanghai.

General Tips

  • Ask students to start by choosing a detail in the film that is significant to them, ideally a moment that they don’t quite know what to make of. The process of writing a film analysis is more (personally) rewarding when a student both generates a question and answers it with evidence that they have identified in the film.
  • Ask students to provide screenshots of the scenes they are writing about. While streaming services sometimes prevent taking screenshots, it is legal to capture a still image from an online video.
  • Film analysis demands careful attention and precise use of film terminology, but it’s a fulfilling and fun activity. Students should choose moments that excite them and learn how to explain what it is them that fascinates them about a give sequence. 

Supplementary Materials