Ever since the release of Chinese sci-fi blockbuster The Wandering Earth (TWE) (2019), it has often been compared with the Hollywood equivalent of Interstellar (2014) (Liu; Ma and Hua; Rong; Sun; Zhou). Both heavily feature themes of space travel driven by extreme changes in the climate, resulting in the quest for a new home. Furthermore, both tell a story of the father leaving the children behind to be part of a seemingly impossible mission that concerns the fate of humankind. However, the approaches taken by the protagonists differ noticeably across both films, with TWE being rooted in collectivism and Interstellar being rooted in individualism. This impression is partly driven by the cosmopolitan background of TWE as well as a narrative that is consistently split across multiple protagonists and their self-sacrifices as opposed to one focused predominantly on the exceptional capabilities of a single protagonist in Interstellar. Several scholars have extended this notion to the portrayals of heroism in to suggest the existence of two distinct types: collective heroism vs individual heroism (Wei and Xu; Yu).
However, when examining acts of heroism in an apocalypse, we often see that they culminate in the benefit of the collective, because heroes tend to be defined by their ability to benefit the greater good. Thus, one cannot help but consider: are the two really as mutually exclusive as they seem? Do these categorisations even add value to the discussion of heroism? This article will argue that despite the outwardly dissimilar types of heroism being portrayed in TWE and Interstellar, the distinction between collective and individual heroism is one that is largely arbitrary. This is because if we are to examine what heroism encompasses, we will find that heroism in itself deals with the individual and collective in addition to the fact that the line between the two tends to blur in an apocalypse.
What is Heroism?
According to many current scholars, Heroism is construed as a profound display of altruistic behaviour which is carried out willingly. Not only does heroism encompass substantial uncertainty, it also calls for sacrifice and acting in the absence of expectation of individual benefit (Franco et al.; Allison et al., as cited in Allison and Green). Although there seems to exist a common understanding of what heroes are, the boundaries of what heroism entails are ever expanding and rarely clearly defined. What it means to be a hero is constantly influenced by popular media and shifting societal trends. Some scholars have even gone so far as to argue that heroism is “ultimately a mental and social construction” and thus open to interpretations (Allison and Goethals, as cited in Allison and Green). This fluidity sets the stage for later when discussing the unnecessary distinctions being between individual and collective heroism.
Collective Heroism in The Wandering Earth
In the beginning of TWE, the narration sets the tone of the film:
The sun is rapidly degenerating and expanding. At this rate, the Sun will engulf Earth in 100 years. Within 300 years, the Solar System will no longer exist. To face this cataclysmic catastrophe, mankind united like never seen before. In order to maximise the chance of human survival, the United Earth Government (UEG) decided to propel Earth out of our Solar System to fly towards our new home 4.2 light years away. This mighty and enduring human migration is named as the Wandering Earth Project (The Wandering).
Right from the outset, viewers are introduced to a sense of cosmopolitanism through the formation of a global institution whereby “all human beings, regardless of their political affiliation, are citizens in a single community” (Kleingeld and Brown). Coupled with the obvious Chinese cultural markers in the introductory scene, this creates some sense of the collective even before any notion of heroism is introduced, especially since Chinese culture is often associated with collectivism (Zhang and Liu). Within the story the main group of protagonists, consisting of family members Liu Pei Qiang (father), Han Zi Ang (grandfather) and Han Duo Duo (daughter) are subsequently joined by the rescue team when things take a turn and Earth becomes on course for a collision with Jupiter. The team fails in their execution of the initial plan, and is left with plan B which involves generating an explosion large enough to repel Earth from Jupiter through the ignition of their combined atmospheres.
In TWE, the sense of a collective heroism arises partly as a result of the sheer number of people giving up their lives, but in a manner in which it advances their overall mission. For instance, He Lianke (rescue team) musters all his strength to make the final connection to manually override the controls for the Earth Engine, despite being buried under rubble. This is done before he passes on, without which the team would not have been able to restore the engines.
The other instance is when one of the rescuers readily sacrifices his own life in the elevator shaft to save that of Han, whose life is deemed crucial due to his ability to manoeuvre the truck. The lack of hesitation from the rescuer further points to the extent to which the interests of the collective are prioritised above all else. Therefore, this sequence of self-sacrifices leading up to the ultimate sacrifice of Liu suggests the persistence of collective heroism throughout the film.
Towards the climax of TWE we find the most prominent display of collective heroism, which is when everyone responds to Han Duo Duo’s final call for help through the broadcast when the rescue team requires help to execute plan B. Despite little chance of success, international allies across all fronts give up their last moments with their loved ones to come together in a last-ditch effort to kickstart the main engine by inserting the ignition pin. They all unite for the collective of humankind, and together they “produce stronger power in the collective because of trust and combination”, which is also what Yu describes to be “collective heroism”.
Individual Heroism in Interstellar
As for Interstellar, we find a story centred around ex-NASA pilot Joseph Cooper, who is tasked to find a new home for humans as earth becomes uninhabitable. The heroism involved is one rooted in western liberal individualism, one which “champions individual rights” and expresses the fundamental idea that people are “autonomous and self-contained individuals” (Holowchak). Cooper’s initial undertaking of the space mission represents a call to adventure as understood as part of The Hero’s Journey (Campbell and Cousineau). However, he does so as a way of fulfilling his potential as a pilot, believing that it is what he was “born to do” and that “they chose [him]” (Interstellar). In response to the possibility of never seeing his family again, Cooper swiftly makes the difficult choice of leaving them behind. Thus, his lack of consideration for anything but himself proves highly individualistic, even if involves lots of courage in taking up a seemingly impossible mission into the unknown.
Cooper’s display of individualist heroism returns towards the end of the film, where he tried manually dock the spacecraft onto the Endurance, despite it being partially blown up and spinning away. He takes it upon himself to carry out such a technically demanding and risky act against the advice of AI robot CASE who concluded that it was simply impossible. In response, Cooper merely claims that “it’s necessary” for him to do so, disregarding the potential risks of blowing up. Shortly after, Cooper detaches his ship and descends into the wormhole hastily, without even discussing with his fellow astronaut Dr Brand and properly weighing the consequences of his actions. His decision may be sound as it stems from the lack of resources for both of them to make it to the last planet, but it is nevertheless indicative of the self-reliance and autonomous decision making that is emblematic of the individual heroism that pervades Interstellar.
When the lines between collective and individual start to blur…
Nevertheless, we notice the different types of heroism beginning to converge towards the climax of the apocalypse, which involves a fatherly act of self-sacrifice as a form of ultimate resolution in both films. This happens for two reasons: individual heroism inevitably benefits the collective when saving one’s child becomes synonymous with saving the world, while the second arises when collective heroism on its own is insufficient to save the world.
In Interstellar, we see the former reason as Cooper descends into the blackhole and finds himself in a five-dimensional tesseract. Not knowing whether he will live or not, Cooper focuses on sending messages to Murph to provide her with the much-needed data about the black hole’s singularity that was later used to solve the problem of gravity. Though initially an individualistic act that stems from his love for his daughter, Cooper’s self-sacrifice ultimately benefits the collective which is humankind because it enabled humanity’s departure from Earth.
While a similar alignment of interests can be found in TWE, what matters more is that we observe traces of individualism surfacing in the final heroic act of Liu, suggesting the necessity of some degree of individual heroism in order to save the collective. In sacrificing his spaceship to generate a shockwave large enough to repel Earth away from Jupiter, Liu directly defies orders of the UEG by overriding the AI system, despite the complete improbability of his plan. This display of self-reliance and independent decision-making echoes the same kind of individual heroism seen earlier in Interstellar, but presents itself as somewhat incongruent to the earlier collective heroism displayed by the rescue team, where they fully devoted themselves to the cause established by the UEG. However, such individual heroism proved to be pivotal in saving the collective that consists of his son and the homeland he cares about, without which the earlier collective efforts would have been in vain.
The notion that heroism “encapsulates both individual and collective interests” (Lois) is also supported by the Hero’s Journey which involves “separation, initiation, and return” (Campbell, as cited in Lois). In this journey, heroes explore the self and develop into something more than they were, before returning home with “the power to bestow boons on [their] fellow man” (Campbell, as cited in Lois). The relevance of this framework is evident in both Interstellar and TWE, from the moment both Liu and Cooper decide to leave their family behind up till the point they discover the importance of their family and recognize the need to make amends. Even though they do not manage to “return” home to benefit their collective, they manage to do so through their self-sacrifice. This demonstrates the relevance of the individual and collective during the respective phases of the Hero’s Journey (Campbell and Cousineau), and thus both remain central to the concept of heroism.
Upon closer examination of the underlying motivations behind the acts of heroism, it also becomes apparent how intentions of the protagonists lack consistency and easily fluctuate between the collective and the individual. For Cooper, there exists constant tension between his role as a pilot and parent. His thoughts and considerations alternate between his family and that beyond his lifespan, related to the greater good of the species. The same can be said for Liu, who eventually risks the bigger collective of humankind for the sake of the collective that includes his son and homeland. This difficulty in reconciling one’s inclinations between the individual and the collective prompts us to consider scraping this distinction altogether with regards to the heroism that emerges from it, because of how tenuous such concepts are.
Furthermore, “collective heroism” appears to be a problematic concept if we were to deconstruct the term and reference earlier definitions about heroism. “Collective heroism” comes across as an oxymoron, because heroism on its own naturally has an individualistic connotation to it, since by definition it is about a single person who possesses noble qualities and has outstanding achievement. This has always been associated with the lone hero archetype (Campbell, as cited in Hall), who may receive help from others along the way but ultimately acquires success due to his or her own merits. That being said, the notion of the group hero has been gaining traction over the years, whereby “heroic exploits are credited to the actions of the entire group” (Hall), giving rise to a sense of a collective. However, here we find that the definition of collective heroism starts to get ambiguous, because on one hand it could simply refer to a group of heroic individuals coming together as a collective, yet on the other it could represent just about any ordinary group whose combined effort leads to something greater than themselves. With such ambiguity involved, it becomes apparent its counterpart “individual heroism” merely serves as a convenient opposite that tells us little more than what we already know about heroism. Therefore, both terms represent poorly constructed concepts that unnecessarily conflate the ideas of collectivism versus individualism (Hofstede) on top of heroism. While they may strive to function as ideal types, there is minimal value add and it would be far more productive and meaningful to consider the above-mentioned concepts on their own.
Ultimately, it appears that heroism on its own exists as a sufficiently broad concept that encompasses both the individual and the collective, thus there is little need for further distinction through concepts of collectivism versus individualism. Stacking such ideas onto a dynamic concept like heroism and propagating the use of such terms may end up introducing confusion or worse still, lead to inconsistent usage across scholarly work. In addition, it may be more meaningful to examine heroism under non-apocalyptic circumstances, as that could lead to more interesting insights where the interests of the individual and collective do not align so easily.
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