Wen Ren’s Last Sunrise is a film that recalls the issues of fellow Chinese sci-fi blockbuster The Wandering Earth. Both its intention— to be an honest look at our modern energy crisis— and core narrative conceit— what if energy crisis was caused by our total reliance on a renewable source that is suddenly dissipated— are solid. However, like The Wandering Earth, Last Sunrise never finds its footing, and ends up squandering its promising ideas.
There is no one person who can be blamed for the shortcomings of Last Sunrise. Rather this appears to be another victim of the Chinese film industries too-rapid growth. This is the first film for director Wen Ren; writers Yankang Mei, Elly Li, and Min Yu; and stars Jue Zhang and Yue Zhang— and it shows. They have enthusiasm and ambition to spare, but it’s clear that they lack the requisite experience to make a project of this scale coalesce. Certainly, there are bright spots of directing, acting, and writing scattered throughout, but their luster is far from enough to save the film from its numerous shortcomings.
This is especially disappointing because Last Sunrise starts out promising. We’re introduced to a not-so-distant future where solar energy has completely replaced non-renewable fossil fuels. The film begins when the sun disappears (yes, really) and the world is plunged into an endless night where all energy is depleted, and the temperature is plummeting. Important information is subtly sewn into the fabric a la Blade Runner. Wen Ren and the writers appear to trust us enough to infer meaning rather than spelling everything out. However, this connect-the-dots style of storytelling is prevalent across the entirety of the film and is used in places where more explicit filmmaking is not only appropriate but necessary.
The characters are thinly written. We are offered glimpses into who they are as people, but it cannot be overexpressed how minimal these are. Protagonist Sun (Jeu Zhang) is sullen and single, his neighbor and eventual friend Chen (Yeu Zhang) use her bubbliness to conceal emotions. This where their character traits begin and end, and the script never builds the connective tissue exploring why they behave this way. Neither Jeu Zhang nor Yeu Zhang has the experience required to create complex performances from so little. They do their best to inject character where they can, but the result is performances that oscillate between totally flat and exaggerated to the point of parody on a scene by scene basis.
This would not be such as issue— many great works of science-fiction contain awful performances— if the plot was strong enough to support the weak performances, but alas it is not. The promising concept of “what would happen if solar reliant society lost the sun?” is meticulously set up only to be abandoned almost immediately. Last Sunrise pivots away from this premise to become a road trip adventure with Sun and Chen fleeing collapsing society for a bastion of safety on the other side of the country. The script is episodic, with each section narratively divorced from the next. This amounts to a film with ideas that it doesn’t explore, and a meandering plot that builds to nothing.
What makes Last Sunrise feel so disappointing is that you can sense the urgency of the people making it. Our oncoming energy crisis is a something that Wen Ren and the writers clearly feel strongly about; rightly so considering the current state of the world. You want them to latch onto something and explore it with as much depth as possible, but they barely scratch the surface. This is a project that would be challenging for a great director at the height of their career, and it’s clear than Ren and company are simply too inexperienced to do the concept justice. Last Sunrise threatens to be pointed and timely, but it ends up feeling like most of the discourse on energy and climate change: uncommitted and directionless.