Though the coming heyday of China-made sci-fi blockbusters has been a failed prophesy for years, a new movie adaptation of a novel by Hugo Award winner Liu Cixin has once again buoyed expectations among China's sci-fi lovers and cinemagoers.
"The Wandering Earth," scheduled to hit Chinese screens next February, has left critics wondering whether it will usher in a new era of big-budget, hard-core and domestically developed sci-fi movies.
The film, directed by Guo Fan and adapted from Liu's 2000 short story of the same name, was in the limelight during the recently-concluded China Science Fiction Conference, but questions were also raised on whether China's movie industry and the market is ready for it.
Gong Geer, the producer of the film, told Xinhua they do not want the film to be a copycat of every other Hollywood blockbuster.
"We hope the plot, characters and scenes in the film can impress our audience as being Chinese, as this is a very Chinese story," he said.
Liu's original works of the "Wandering Earth" tells a story about how humans, threatened by a dying and swelling sun, erect gigantic engines to propel the planet out of the solar system, setting it on a centuries-long journey in search of a new sun.
The official trailer has offered a glimpse into the film's many futuristic scenes, including a frozen "2044 Shanghai Olympic Mansion" and a huge Earth Engine towering over the Great Wall.
"Westerners may be surprised by the idea of humans leaving with the earth instead of fleeing in spacecraft. What they may see in this film is the Chineses' dedication to the land, as nurtured in the country's long agricultural history," Gong said.
China boasts the world's second-largest film market, with a box office reaching 55.9 billion yuan (about 8.05 billion U.S. dollars) in 2017. As a high-grossing film genre, sci-fi movies in China are mostly Hollywood imports, prompting an outcry for Chinese sci-fi blockbusters.
"I love movies like 'Interstellar,' but I also expect to see Chinese faces and Chinese stories in a sci-fi blockbuster," said Tan Yuming, a 21-year-old finance major at Shenzhen University and sci-fi fan.
Industry observers have attributed the scarcity of China-made sci-fi films to the low industrialization level in China's movie industry, which pushes up the cost of everything from spacecraft interior to spacesuit props, a lack of experience of sci-fi moviemaking and uncertainties in a market spoiled by imported sci-fi films.
It is widely hoped that adaptations of works from world-famous sci-fi writers like Liu will be trailblazers for Chinese sci-fi blockbusters, but "The Three-Body Problem," adapted from Liu's Hugo-winning masterpiece, has yet to hit the screen despite having completed filming in 2015.
And even if "The Wandering Earth" becomes a hit, China still faces the conundrum of producing more successors to keep the market booming, said Jiao Jing, vice president of United Entertainment Partners, a Beijing-based movie publishing and publicity company.
"'The Wandering Earth' may be the Yao Ming (Chinese NBA star) of China's sci-fi movie sector, but we also need people like Yi Jianlian," Jiao said.
Despite the concerns, many sci-fi writers and fans are excited about the prospect of China creating its own sci-fi blockbusters. Liu Cixin, at the press conference of the sci-fi conference, said he is optimistic that China could become a major producer of sci-fi movies and TV works.
"Sci-fi writing does not have a very large group of followers, but sci-fi movies are different," said sci-fi writer Yu Haoyi, who hopes a hit movie can bring in more attention and capital to boost the sci-fi sector.
Teng Ye, a new sci-fi writer, also said it was his dream to see movie adaptions of his novels in hopes that it will attract more viewers and discussions. "Films and TV dramas, as a different art genre, will also inspire sci-fi writers."
There are also signs of China's movie industry's coming of age for domestic sci-fi. Ji Shaoting, founder of Future Affairs Administration (FAA), which provides assistance for young sci-fi writers, said movie producers have started to approach new sci-fi writers for adaptations.
"In the past, they were only interested in works by leading writers with a large following, hoping their fame will make things easier," she told Xinhua. "Their rising interest in new sci-fi works suggests the industry is maturing and has more experience and strength to adapt works by new writers."