Restart The Earth (Chong Qi Di Qiu)

China (2021) Dir. Lin Zhenzhao

Not a bad suggestion if you think about given the way things are going at the moment, with right wing leaders making a mess of everything, COVID, racism, and other issues making the world a pretty miserable place right now. This film however, looks at our pressing ecological misdeeds.

To avoid the earth becoming transformed into deserts, scientists have created drugs that replicate plant cells but inadvertently caused a rare strain of flora to become sentient and over-reproduced. With the current ecosystem unable to satiate the plant’s hunger, they have started to attack humans and overrun the surface, with 85% of the land now flora.

Known as The Catastrophe, global population has depleted with branches of specialist forces now operating underground. Three years later, Yang Hao (He Shangming) and his young daughter Yuan yuan (Zhang Ming Can) are struggling to survive when they are caught by a ravaging plant, saved by a Chinese task force on a mission to inject a serum which will hopefully reverse the flora’s growth and return the planet to normal.

It is hard not to ignore the irony of this ecological warning coming from a country which just one week ago had to be shamed into participating in the COP 26 summit to discuss the fight against climate change. Not that the two are related but you get the picture, and with Restart The Earth being a typically nationalistic outing as most Chinese films are lately, the lack of self-awareness is cringe worthy.

Some audience may want to avoid this film for these reasons but in fact its intentions feel more good natured than it sounds, and the concept is quite interesting. Killer plants aren’t new, with precedents set in such works as H.G Wells’ 1905 short story The Flowering of the Strange Orchid or more famously John Wyndham’s 1951 novel Day Of The Triffids, but this is more epic thanks to CGI.

Don’t worry, the Chinese flag waving patriotism isn’t laid on until the very end, though it isn’t difficult to see the story heading in that direction, but I guess it makes a change from the Americans being the heroes. Taking distant cues from Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host, this environmental disaster is also manmade, and one of the people involved is Yang Hao’s scientist wife Ye Yan (Michelle Ye), which posits her family as the ones to end this mess.

Flashbacks reveal the day the plants awakened and hit China, Yang Hao had a difficult choice to make – save his wife as she was being attacked by a vicious tendril or save his daughter, also being abducted by a sneaky vine. Ye Yan insists he saves Yuan yuan which brings us to the present day as father and daughter are alone in an overgrown forest which was previously a playground.

Remarkably intelligent, these hungry trees kidnap Yuan yuan by taking her whole bed and dragging it underground to their lair with Yang Hao in pursuit. I should point out the mutated flora resemble dragons, with large thorns as spines, and crusty bark for scales. The head opens up to reveal a flowering mouth with lashing tongue, and they roar like monsters too. Sounds kooky but actually is quite menacing.  

Because this is the 21st century, the task force that saves Yang Hao and Yuan yuan is comprised of male and female soldiers. Li Mo (Luo Mi) is impressive with a sword, whilst Xu Jing (Li Ruoxi) is a sharpshooter, but this doesn’t mean they are not emotionless, just not ruled by their feminine side. Xu Jing rejects advances from Shi Tou (Huang Kailun) but – spoiler – when he perishes, it naturally hits her hard.

With the mission being to journey to the core of the plants’ growth and inject the serum, a large portion of the film sees this ever-diminishing group overcome a number of life threatening obstacles which, I am sure you have surmised, not everybody survives. It is here that the heroism of the fallen sows the seeds for patriotic hurrah of the coda, with each departed soldier declared to have “sacrificed themselves” rather than dying.

As intriguing and fertile as the main premise is, the 89-minute run time means little is discussed in depth about how this got so out of hand, as well as a feasible exploration into the science side of things. To that end, this is mostly non-stop action with the odd lull to let the characters display hints of a personality or personal stake before they are inevitably “sacrificed”, although we are stuck with tropes, like the fat one, the bossy one, and so on.

Ethically, little is raised at any point during the film, again saved for the denouement as Yuan yuan’s voice over warns us that humans are not the masters of the earth. Again, this would have eaten into the action so if this ever gets a Hollywood remake (and I am sure it will) you can expect heavier cogent yet patronising discourse on how we are screwing the planet up.

Visually, this falls into two camps – the very good and the iffy. The dystopian landscapes are superbly drawn and feel eerily plausible as a presage yet it is also obvious when it is a green screen background. The dragon-like plants are also very good aesthetically, rich in texture if a little stilted in movement. The weakest effects are the explosions at the end, which should have been far more realistic for a film with this budget.

Judging a film like Restart The Earth means looking at it from two perspectives. As a slice of escapist but well-meaning fantasy fare, it serves its purpose and contains plenty of thrills and spills, both generic and original; as a message film, the jingoistic aspect feels to be more important than the ecological entreaty, and to its detriment for what is a global issue.   

Conclusion: switch your brain off and leave your cynicism at the door to enjoy this film.