Getting a jump on Avatar: The Way of Water, Warriors of Future is a CGI-ified Hong Kong sci-fi extravaganza that pits man’s industrialized might against the forces of nature. Here, that’s epitomized by a giant alien plant that shares a name, Pandora, with the intergalactic setting of James Cameron’s franchise.
That’s not the only element that Ng Yuen-fai’s film duplicates from Cameron’s oeuvre, as it also borrows liberally from Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Aliens—not to mention Transformers, Iron Man, Edge of Tomorrow, Pacific Rim, RoboCop and video game series like Halo and The Last of Us. Originality, suffice it to say, is not its strong suit.
Still, if one can set aside the fact that there’s virtually nothing new about this import, there’s modest pleasure to be had from reveling in its sheer excessiveness. Now on Netflix—following a summer theatrical premiere in Hong Kong, when it became the city’s most successful Chinese-language movie ever—Warriors of Future is the feature directorial debut of Ng Yuen-fai, a visual effects star who puts all of his digital talents to use during the course of this chaotic saga.
Computerized flair is the film’s primary calling card, thanks to prolonged sequences of futuristic mayhem that feel like superior versions of an Xbox or PlayStation title’s animated cutscenes. From airborne calamities to on-the-ground skirmishes to man-vs-robot showdowns, there’s no shortage of stylized action tailor-made for genre aficionados. If those sights are modeled after more illustrious predecessors, Ng nonetheless gives them a captivatingly glossy sheen.
Warriors of Future sets its scene through a barrage of backstory exposition that would be more overwhelming if it hadn’t already been heard many times before. Thanks to rapid advances in technology, civilization engaged in endless robot-facilitated war, and when coupled with overdevelopment, the Earth became an ecological nightmare plagued by disease, famine and toxic air that could only be managed through the construction of giant bio-domes known as Skynets.
As if that weren’t problematic enough, while those shields were being built, a giant meteor fell to Earth, bringing with it Pandora, a ferocious plant-like creature that grew—to destructive ends—when it came into contact with water. Pandora was the apparent final nail in humanity’s coffin, except that, in a conveniently ironic twist, the vicious vegetation also had the power to purify the atmosphere!
Pandora is thus both the destroyer and potential savior of the world. In a city known as B16, Dr. Chan Chung Chong (Tse Kwan-ho) discovers a virus that, if injected into Pandora’s pistil, can stop it from growing—thereby relegating it to simply an environmental good. To do this, Dr. Chong and Colonel Tam Bing (Carina Lau) turn to commander Sean Li (Nick Cheung), who allows this plan to go forward with the aid of the Air Combat Unit (ACU) led by Tyler (Louis Koo) and his right-hand man Johnson Cheng (Sean Lau).
Their mission is of the utmost urgency because an impending rainstorm will enlarge Pandora to catastrophic size. Moreover, if Tyler and Johnson can’t accomplish their goal in a tight three-hour window, their superiors will turn to Plan B: using a bomb to kill Pandora and, with it, the 160,000 civilians in the immediate vicinity.
Tyler and Johnson won’t stand for that collateral damage, although Warriors of Future undercuts such a threat by depicting B16 as completely vacant; only in a couple of late shots do we see any actual at-risk city inhabitants. Getting hung up on particulars, however, isn’t worthwhile, since Ng’s prime interest is razzle-dazzle. Tyler and newbie comrade Connor (Wan Guopeng)—whose girlfriend Lucy (Qian Wu) works in the ACU’s headquarters—are outfitted in battery-powered armor that gives them super strength and speed (as well as jet-assisted leaping ability), and they’re accompanied on their assignment by two enormous robots.
When the duo’s ship goes down in the heart of Pandora, Johnson enlists the aid of his and Tyler’s estranged driver Skunk (Philip Keung), who talks about Invasion of the Body Snatchers and resembles a braided-hair extra from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. It’s not long before they’re all banding together to take down their common enemy, as well as to protect a young girl, Pansy (Xiaoxia Cheng), whom they rescue along the way.
Pansy serves as a surrogate daughter for Tyler (whose biological offspring died of cancer), as well as functions as the proceedings de facto Newt (from Aliens). Warriors of Future eventually has its heroes battling bug-like extraterrestrials and menacing machines in set pieces that are as lavishly staged as they are thoroughly imitative. Any number of stateside directors could make a reasonable plagiarism case, but that only partly diminishes the thrills generated by Ng’s direction, which places a premium on gleeful virtual reality-esque craziness.
Nothing in the film seems to adhere to the laws of physics, and that often renders it a high-tech cartoon—a situation exacerbated by an overblown score (courtesy of Chan Kwong-wing) that bludgeons every scene into rousing orchestral-swell submission. Fortunately, it’s a frequently striking-looking affair, its hectic chases and violent fights executed with swift dynamism.
It's a shame that Warriors of Future is only available via streaming in America, given that it’s been fashioned for the big screen, where its state-of-the-art spectacle would be far more at home.
Even so, it’s easy to admire the polish of its flashy showstoppers, which overshadow the clunkiness of its storytelling, be it a betrayal that everyone over the age of five will see coming from the outset, or a climactic race-against-time that’s dramatized with a surplus of sound and fury and a dearth of logic and lucidity. Lau Ho-leung and Mak Tin-shu’s script makes no bones about its influences, but their plotting relies so heavily on one-dimensional characterizations, relationships and dilemmas that the entire narrative is told in veritable shorthand.
Warriors of Future won’t earn any screenwriting awards. On the basis of its CGI chaos and madness, however, it just might win over American sci-fi fans eager for a large-scale December blockbuster—and, in doing so, give birth to the interstellar sequel teased by its coda.